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Alice O’Connor, a professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara, argues that poverty is a creation of the institutions we have in society.

O’Connor, who has many book titles to her name, including “Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in 20th Century U.S. History,” has pushed back against long-held assumptions that poverty is about character, income or demographic traits.

“What history bears out is that poverty is a characteristic of a political economy of any given time. Poverty is a characteristic of many of the mainstream structures or institutions of society,” O’Connor said in a 2016 interview. “Poverty is a product of the racialized lines of ideas and stereotypes and institutions that we have in society, and those are the objects we ought to be studying and figuring out how to intervene in, to change, if we’re actually going to do something lasting about the problem of poverty.”

O’Connor is right.

If we are ever going to seriously tackle the challenges of social and economic exclusion that are commonplace, we cannot abandon the historical institutional factors that have exacerbated the plight of the working poor.

And in a city like Detroit, which is ranked as the largest poverty city in America at 35.7 percent, there has to be multi-dimensional institutional approaches in dealing with the crisis of inequality that would lead to less poverty and more opportunity for Detroiters. We have to emphasize the need for inclusive institutions that can influence decisions that would include those who feel excluded in the city’s ongoing revitalization efforts. At the same time, we also have to examine the degree of inclusiveness of policies that could potentially limit opportunities for families and children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed.

Last week, the University of Michigan through its Poverty Solutions program took the initiative to answer that institutional call in Detroit. The university announced a four-year agreement to provide $500,000 annually toward the city’s efforts to address poverty.

But what would a successful outcome of this engagement look like beyond the university writing a check to the city?

“Our goal is to find new ways to prevent and alleviate poverty. We hope that we and our partners will develop new strategies and that we can spread the word about the ones that work so they can be exported to other places in the state and across the country,” said Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions.

An example, he says, is an innovation project that is utilizing community health workers in partnership with some community groups and the city’s health department.

“Community health workers are trained from the communities they serve and can provide preventive health services effectively,” Shaefer said. “If this project shows they can impact health at the community level, it may pave the way for reimbursement by Medicaid, which would help improve health while also creating good jobs.”

Shaefer believes public universities like UM have a role in fighting poverty.

“We’re clear that a public university will be effective only if it works in partnership with communities and policy makers,” Shaefer said. “So everything we are doing in Detroit, we’re doing in partnership. We think scholars at a place like UM can bring analysis and technical support to help build on current programs and pilot new ones to help inform the choices that communities and policy makers make.”

He added, “A major part of Poverty Solution’s role will be to help the city define and analyze short- and long-term metrics of economic mobility and to provide data for decision making. And we can assist in tracking and evaluating progress to make sure initiatives we’re a part of are bringing value to those they are meant to serve.”

Only time will tell if UM’s funding, which brings attention to the plight of Detroit’s majority poor and reignites the debate about broader measures to fight poverty, will prove to be an effective model for others to follow.

“We hope that by being good partners and bringing the skills and knowledge we have, we can help make a difference while also building knowledge about what works in fighting poverty,” Shaefer said. “Of course we can only this with partners. Universities can’t come in and assume they have the answers. But if work is done collaboratively, we have a role to play.”

The university making resources available to the city to deal with poverty is not only a matter of strengthening its own institutional capacity in Detroit. It is also part of a continuing trend, where some colleges are pushing to be directly involved in social justice projects that deal with growing inequality.

That colleges should not build a wall between them and the communities they serve, and instead should be agents of social transformation, was the focus in Judith Rodin’s book “The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Streets.”

Rodin, a former president of the University of Pennsylvania, is credited for launching the West Philadelphia Initiatives that sought to reclaim and transform neighborhoods connected to the university through major financial and institutional commitments.

By leveraging the university’s resources to fight poverty, Rodin demonstrated that colleges can be powerful allies in the fight for quality of life in impoverished communities like Detroit.

That is why UM’s new initiative is a welcome addition in creating an equitable Detroit, and in helping the city deal with the challenges of quality of life issues facing many of its residents.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.

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