The Arithmetic of Desperation in Detroit


Yesterday, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced Kevyn Orr as his pick for emergency manager of Detroit. Orr would wield near total power over the city’s finances, and his duties supersede those of the city’s elected mayor and city council.

In this weekend’s edition of Counterpunch, I wrote an article contextualizing the city’s budget crisis:

Though it’s rarely recognized in state or national media, Detroit has already instituted its own program of devastating austerity in an attempt to regain solvency. The city has closed almost half of its schools since 2005, and 28 more closures were recently proposed. Police officer rolls were cut almost in half between 2000 and 2008. Half of the city’s bus service has been lost since 2005. Of Detroit’s over 300 parks, only 57 will open this year. The budget in place for 2012-13 cut $246 million, 2,600 jobs, and the entire health and human services departments.

Despite all this hacking and slashing, Detroit still faces an imminent cash shortfall. That’s because the city faces a “structural deficit.” Detroit cannot pay for its own needs. It’s just too poor. The city’s budget is for all intents and purposes unbalanceable, at least not without drastic human cost.

Because of this hard math, I argue that we should be troubled by the governor’s plan for Detroit, and by what it suggests about how we treat America’s most underprivileged citizens.

You can read the whole thing here.

Photo: Detroit house, 2009.

Is Your City Miserable? Ask Forbes

Detroit Michigan

Detroit, Michigan: America’s most miserable city, according to Forbes.

Forbes Magazine’s annual list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities” is out, measuring the (lack of) wellbeing in America’s 200 largest metro areas.

The Forbes list is a close cousin to quality-of-life research—a growing, interdisciplinary body of economic inquiry that recognizes human happiness is not easily measured in dollars and cents. This stands out for Forbes because, well, it’s a publication devoted to dollars and cents.

But read at your own risk: This quality-of-life index has an ideological bent.

“The metrics include the serious: violent crime, unemployment, foreclosures, taxes (income and property) and home prices,” Kurt Badenhausen, the list’s author, wrote last week. “We also include less weighty, but still important quality-of-life issues like commute times and weather.” Detroit earned the dubious honor of most miserable, followed by Flint, Mich., Rockford, Ill., Chicago, and Modesto, Calif. All told, it’s probably a pretty accurate list, but it also includes a few flights of social conservative fancy.

For instance: Why equate taxes with misery? Campus Progress called Badenhausen to ask.

“For people who live in high-tax states and high-tax cities, it is a continuous point of angst that they have to deal with,” he said. “You talk to people in New York and New Jersey, some of the property taxes they have to pay, it’s one of their biggest sources of concern.” Badenhausen said Forbes editors chose the metrics, guided in part by feedback from Forbes readers.

But tax money isn’t just flushed down the toilet, Carl Davis, senior policy analyst at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy responded.

“They’re counting higher tax rates as a variable that contributes to people’s misery, but I don’t see the variable here for fire department response time, or whether that crack in the sidewalk outside your apartment is going to get fixed, or how long you’re going to have to wait at the courthouse to get the paperwork you need,” he said. Local and state taxes also fund essential public services like education, mass transportation and health care.

Taxes aside, many of the other Forbes variables were well-chosen. Here’s hoping that they scrap taxes in next year’s list and instead include poverty rate, after-tax income, or another variable that would measure actual financial strain and not just grumblings about the IRS.

Mirrored from Campus Progress. Photo by me.

Detroit, 2009

There’s No Riot Goin’ On


While the late 1960s violence that erupted in urban centers across the country was all somehow related to racial politics, historians and social scientists have disputed the extent to which race played a role in the Detroit riots of 1967. A number have suggested that there should be a shift in emphasis from race to poverty in understanding what happened that summer. But we shouldn’t be cavalier about teasing apart these important social dimensions. In the mid- and late 1960s, the black community in Detroit was suffering through the first wave of what would turn into a decades-long (and obviously still continuing) period of economic hardship. […] Even just twenty years earlier, when housing discrimination was especially bad, young black men could look forward with reasonable optimism to finding service employment at one of the auto plants or their subsidiary factories. But early in the 1960s, the job market for African Americans in the inner city had collapsed, and prospects, especially for young black men, were dismal.

—Pp. 53.

After the riots, Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission found that they were caused by lack of employment opportunity. According to Thomas Sugrue, about 25 percent of young black men in Detroit were unemployed at the time. A quick search of BLS data puts Detroit’s current unemployment rate at about 18 percent.

On Ogling Detroit


On my good friend Pete’s website, I share my thoughts on two photo exhibits showing at the National Building Museum.

If you check them out, you’ll see a lot of collapsing factories, rust, waist-high wild grasses, piles of debris, and houses that have withered away to almost nothing. These images fall firmly into the category of photojournalism known as “ruin porn,” a genre masterfully skewered by Thomas Morton in a piece entitled “Something, Something, Something Detroit.”

At its worst, ruin porn is downright misleading. (About a Detroit vista that appears in one of the NBM exhibits, Morton quips: “If you move the camera just a few inches to the left you’ll get a bustling, well-maintained food-packaging plant in frame, so be careful to crop that shit out.”) At its best the genre is incomplete, showing just one side of a very multifaceted city.

But I do think it’s vital that we see that side. The neglect of postindustrial Detroit, its buildings and its people, is an outrage. By showcasing the rubble left in the wake of the shuttered factories, now moved overseas, the NBM exhibits draw attention to the injustice. I just wish the story were told in its proper context. As I write:

Both photographers profess an interest in Detroit’s ruins as windows into a bygone era. While you view their photos, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on what exactly made that era so noteworthy. Fifty years ago, Detroit was the center of a different America, one in which a union job in an auto factory provided enough money for a home, a car, and a picket fence. In his book The Conscience of A Liberal, Paul Krugman calls it a “Middle-Class Nation.”

That’s why the decay captured in these photographs has such brutal symbolism. As factories moved overseas and union power waned, these jobs weren’t replaced. Today, two-thirds of Americans work in a service economy with sparse benefits, little job security, and an average wage barely above $30,000.

Read the whole review here, and be sure to go see the exhibits as well.

Photo: “Rolling hall, Ford Motor Company, River Rouge Complex, Dearborn” by Andrew Moore, 2008. Courtesy of the National Building Museum.

Ways Out, Js Out

From a book I’m reading:

Rabbit kept at it. “We all from Dexter here, and we ain’t never had nothing!” Several younger boys came into the Coney. They looked like elementary students, and Rabbit assailed them as well. “Don’t fuck around with this dope game, y’all,” he said, as the boys looked askance in embarrassment and went to the counter to order. “Y’all need to stay in school, for real!” he continued. “You need to be down at the boys club, practicing your Js and shit, know what I’m saying? ‘Cuz you all need to get the fuck out of here, you know,” he said, flashing the Dexter D. “Little punk-ass motherfuckers never had shit.” He repeated with rhythmic regularity, “We from Dexter and we ain’t never had nothing.”

I want to note how closely he associates jump shots with getting out of the hood. It makes sense: with little access to quality education or solid blue-collar job opportunities, young people in inner cities have few options.

As dead prez says:

See where I’m from it’s a few ways out
either rappin’ or sports either dope or the casket

The P Word


Over at the blog of my august employer, Taqua Thrasher calls on President Obama and candidate Romney to talk more about poverty:

By now you’ve heard the statistics: 1 in 6 Americans living at or near the poverty line, 45 to 50 million Americans using Food Stamps, 30 to 50 million Americans without healthcare (prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act), and on and on and on.

These numbers are a devastating indictment of the character, the will, and the policies of this nation. A deeper examination of them reveals that 25% of our children (1 in 4) live in poverty; that places us second in the world among developed nations.

We are issuing a challenge to the two men vying for the title President of the United States. […] Say the word ‘poverty’ in your nationally televised convention acceptance speech, and make eradicating it your top policy priority.

But why is “poverty” such political poison? Why do politicians talk as though it’s the middle class that truly has it rough?

A few weeks ago, a friend and I took an exploratory shot at an answer. Some threads we came up with:

  • We do not think highly of poor folks. There are strong currents of thought, both explicit and implicit, that blame impoverished Americans for their own suffering. Meanwhile, we associate middle class status with virtue, hard work, and self-reliance.
  • People living in poverty are less likely to vote; they don’t represent a valuable political constituency and it’s unproductive for politicians to address their concerns.
  • Even if they do vote, almost all poor people identify as “middle class.”
  • Poverty has no place in our national identity. We are supposed to be a beacon of prosperity shining out into the world, so a 25 percent child poverty rate causes us some pretty unpleasant cognitive dissonance. And cognitive dissonance does not make good politics.

There is probably more to the story, and I’m sure I’m not the first to raise this question. If you’ve seen others address it please send their work my way.

Photo: A squatter’s bed in a shuttered Detroit auto plant. 2008.