Report lifts Detroit residents’ economic mobility priorities


A new report from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions lifts up more than a decade’s worth of input from Detroit residents on how to increase economic mobility and decrease poverty in their city. 

The community-based research project, “Investing in Us: Resident Priorities for Economic Mobility in Detroit,” aims to provide policymakers, philanthropic organizations, nonprofits and other service providers with clear guidance on how Detroiters define economic well-being and what strategies they think will work best to increase economic mobility, which is the ability to improve one’s economic status.

The report’s findings — like Detroiters’ differing views on the power of individuals to drive their own economic mobility or the role of police in improving public safety — highlight the importance of nuance in building resident-driven approaches to poverty reduction in the city.

“The research world produces a lot of data, indicators, metrics and maps to tell us how people are doing and how public policy might respond to the need. Often missing from this picture is the voices of residents themselves,” said Afton Branche-Wilson, strategic projects manager at Poverty Solutions’ Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility and lead researcher for Investing in Us.

“Our goal with this project was to listen to residents and make the voices of Detroiters our primary source of data.”

While every Detroit neighborhood is unique, Investing in Us reveals that many residents share a sense of the barriers and solutions to economic mobility. Residents want living-wage jobs, good schools, affordable housing, accessible health care and other foundations of economic well-being.

However, as much as residents spoke about economic stability, they also highlighted the need for a sense of power and agency in efforts to revitalize their communities and the desire for city leaders to value their neighborhoods.

These themes emerged from the research team’s in-depth review of about 400 sources of information reflecting Detroiters’ views on economic mobility from 2007 to 2019, including neighborhood-level plans and reports, citywide reports, news articles and videos quoting Detroiters, videos of public comment at city meetings, and academic journal articles quoting Detroiters. 

Certain neighborhoods and groups were not well represented in these sources, so the research team conducted 12 focus groups to gather input from underrepresented groups. 

“Inclusive conversations about economic mobility begin with a historical review of the engagement and advocacy efforts led by residents, community leaders and local organizations. We can use what was already shared as a solid foundation to co-design solutions,” said Ashleigh Johnson, former community engagement coordinator for Poverty Solutions who helped lead this research.

“Instead of providing feedback on a set agenda, Detroiters can use their power to define what economic well-being means to them, then determine how to achieve and measure success.”

Ten Detroit nonprofit organizations authored sections of Investing in Us to share their perspectives on topics like financial products, workforce development coaching, transportation, equity in early childhood education, disability advocacy, Native American values, community organizing, Detroit’s changing food systems and immigrant inclusion.

Data Driven Detroit also partnered on the project to create Report Detroit, an interactive map and searchable database of neighborhood-level and citywide plans and reports related to economic mobility in the city.

“Detroit faces dire circumstances in terms of the wage gap, the wealth gap, race equity issues. This is a critical issue for American society, for our state and for our region. So what we need are new and creative solutions, and the Investing in Us blueprint for Detroit is the beginning of that process,” said Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, one of the nonprofits that contributed to the report.

In the months ahead, the research team will continue to share findings from Investing in Us, which is supported by Ballmer Group, and produce a series of policy briefs to inspire action on select priorities highlighted in this report. Poverty Solutions and the Detroit Urban Research Center also will award a new round of community-academic grants in the coming weeks to support action-based research projects related to economic mobility in Detroit.

“Ballmer Group believes that Detroit’s rich network of community development corporations and other community-based organizations are the engines of neighborhood and citywide revitalization,” said Kylee Mitchell Wells, executive director of Southeast Michigan at Ballmer Group.

“We are thrilled that Poverty Solutions wrote Investing in Us from the vantage point of these organizations and the residents they represent, relying on the lessons they’ve collectively learned over the past decade about what it will take to promote economic mobility for Detroit residents.”


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