Innovative Solutions to the Poverty Crisis in Detroit


The City of Detroit is known for its diverse culture and hardworking citizens. It is the birthplace of Motown and techno, and has influenced the development of jazz, rock, hip-hop and punk.

Detroit is also well known for its critical role in the American auto industry, earning the title of “America’s Industrial Heartland.”

But, many of Detroit’s hardworking citizens are also impoverished.  With three times the national rate of poverty, advocates are tackling the continued growth of crippling poverty in already challenged neighborhoods.

Detroit Has Faced Financial Challenges Head-on

Over the years, the once roaring metropolis of Detroit has taken its fair share of economic hits, from the decline of the auto industry to “The Great Recession” and the municipality’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2013. It is a city that has had to weather a number of financial hardships outside of its control.

According to a study by the Brookings Institution, Detroit now has the highest concentrated poverty rate among the nation’s most populated metro areas.

What does this mean? A concentrated area of poverty is defined as an area that has a poverty rate of 40% or more. Fact: 53% of Detroit residents call these concentrated areas of poverty their home.

Detroit’s Economic Growth is Its Future

There is encouraging news, too.

According to the 2016 US Census, Detroit’s overall poverty rate dropped by 4% in just one year, and its median household income grew by $2,000. Detroit also continues to experience job growth and a resurgence in its downtown, with the influx of tech and manufacturing companies setting up shop.

These improvements signal good news for its economy, yet the positive impact has not been distributed equally across Detroit’s 139 square miles. Rev. David Alexander Bullock, pastor and leader of Change Agent Consortium, sees the ripple effects of this continued poverty. “People are trapped,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “Those with access and means are moving out, leaving behind those who can’t leave.”

Detroit’s Director of Communication and Public Engagement of Poverty Solutions, Kristen Kerecman, echoes the inescapable nature of Detroit’s poverty. “Detroit has its success stories,” she shares, “But what we also see is an intergenerational cycle of poverty. It’s hard to break out of.”

Poverty Solutions for Detroit

Born out of the University of Michigan’s mission and long legacy of public engagement and social impact, Poverty Solutions is an initiative that unites a team of top experts to research, innovate and test solutions to prevent and alleviate poverty.

In 2017, Poverty Solutions partnered with the city of Detroit and works directly with policy makers to tackle some of the city’s top priority issues, like increasing affordable housing options, making public transportation more accessible, and improving healthcare availability.

The partnership is a perfect coming together of academic scope, municipal assets and boots-on-the-ground data and analysis. “Our insight and work are unique because we operate with a university perspective,” explained Kerecman. “We’re able to test the most promising initiatives and measure in real time what’s working and what’s not. Ideally, if effective, these initiatives can be scaled from the local to the state and federal levels.”

The partnership has already led to many positive initiatives. For example, The Community Health Workers in Detroit program was created to build a bridge between underserved populations and healthcare systems. Community health workers are recruited from and work in their home neighborhoods, so they understand the culture and often speak the same language as the members of the community they serve.

The Community Health Workers in Detroit program is successful not only because it aims to improve health outcomes, but it also creates jobs within neighborhoods like Cody Rouge. By investing in a disadvantaged community’s health and economic wellbeing, the program has made steps to help break the cycle of poverty.

Poverty Solutions at a Local Level

At Operation Warm, we have seen how important it is to operate at a local level. We rely on our local partners and supporters, and our volunteers to help us reach communities in need and to serve children, families and schools where they live.

More than half of Detroit’s children live below the federal poverty line, and for families struggling to provide basic needs to their children, like a brand new coat, it can be impossible. And in a city like Detroit, where winter temperatures dip below zero degrees, wearing a warm coat is essential to attend school and play outside. 

Detroit’s Rotary Club Program

Operation Warm Rotary eventLocal Rotary clubs recognized the extensive need in their community, and partnered with Operation Warm to give brand new coats to children across Detroit. With this program, they have provided a gift of warmth, confidence and hope to more than 12,000 children in the greater Detroit metro area. It can help improve their self-confidence, peer acceptance, school attendance, and overall wellness.

“We spend plenty of time looking at the huge problems children face, but not enough time on the mundane but heartbreaking daily challenges they deal with, like getting enough to eat or having warm clothes to wear to school in the winter,” said Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley. She worked closely with the Detroit area’s Rotary clubs on the Operation Warm brand new coat project.

While poverty in Detroit is a complex puzzle, we know that initiatives such as those by Poverty Solutions, Operation Warm and Rotary clubs can improve lives and relieve families of some of the financial stress they face.

Reach out to us to learn more about the State of Poverty in Detroit and to start your own coat program.  If you would like to help us put brand new winter coats on more of Detroit’s children, visit Operation Warm’s volunteer opportunities page to learn more about how to become an Operation Warm volunteer.

Receive stories of warmth, confidence and hope and learn how you can help children in need. Join the Operation Warm monthly newsletter!


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