The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 27, 2013

Detroit: Out of crisis comes opportunity

September 27, 2013

Today, members of the Obama Administration are meeting with officials in Detroit to identify ways to align existing federal resources with strategies that facilitate Detroit’s recovery.  As I recommended this summer, there is a lot the federal government can do to “unlock” federal funding, remove regulatory barriers, and convene experts to help Detroit officials leverage existing resources.

In advance of today’s meetings, the White House released a fact sheet detailing $300 million in public, private, and philanthropic resources that will be deployed to stimulate economic growth by removing blight, improving public safety and transportation access, and helping create a 21st Century Detroit. It is an impressive list of actions that includes direct investments by the private and philanthropic sectors as well.  Ford, Kresge, and Knight Foundations are all making significant contributions.

These actions are a positive step, but there is more that the federal government could do to ensure that people who are living in or at the edge of poverty are not made more vulnerable by the current crisis.  Millions of federal dollars flow to individuals and public and non-profit service providers in Detroit that help mitigate the effects of poverty.  But as the capacity of Detroit’s city government diminished over the years, the administration of public assistance programs has fragmented.

Detroit’s footprint is huge, which makes place-based approaches to service delivery hard.  However, some existing institutions like schools could be used -- in addition to One-Stop Employment Centers -- as an accessible point of entry for Detroiters seeking help finding a job, childcare, TANF benefits, SNAP assistance, and help paying utility costs. These services would help to create stability in an uncertain time.  Alternatively, Detroit could experiment with ways to provide social service case management to families in parts of Detroit not well served by transit.  This could include consulting over the phone with families trying to access healthcare benefits, childcare and food assistance or co-locating service providers on a bus that would travel to neighborhoods on a regular schedule, not unlike the way service delivery is provided in more rural or suburban areas where poverty is more dispersed.

As Detroit examines how to better use existing resources, the federal government and local philanthropies can help the city experiment with different evidence-based approaches to alleviating poverty.  Doing so ensures that Detroit not only bounces back from this crisis, but uses it as a moment to transform the city – making it a place where every resident can thrive.

My colleagues Greg Acs, Nancy LaVigne and Rolf Pendall look forward to discussing these and other policy issues tomorrow after the Woolly Mammoth production of the play “Detroit.”  Come join us! 

Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP

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