Detroit—Highest Urban Concentration of Poverty in the US Can Be Deadly

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April 26, 2016, Detroit Free Press

It could be said about the protracted undoing of Detroit that there has never been an unpublished viewpoint. Search NPQ and hundreds of results emerge, from the UN’s rebuke of Detroit’s water shutoffs to the promise of the “Grand Bargain” and how nonprofits might help revitalize the city. Books such as The Last Days of Detroit and Detroit: An American Autopsy describe how the once-proud Motown lost its prestige. The New York Times Magazine article, “The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit,” would seem to be the final chapter in this tragedy.

Except recent reports cited by Niraj Warikoo at the Detroit Free Press describe Detroit’s new lows. According to the Brookings Institution’s analysis of the 2010-2014 census data, Detroit has the highest concentration of poverty among the nation’s top 25 metro areas and all US cities with more than 300,000 residents. In Detroit’s six-county region, “32 percent of the poor live in census tracts where at least 40 percent of the population is below the poverty line,” up from nine percent in 2000.

Despite a local billionaire buying up much of downtown and the rise of worker-owned cooperatives, despair stubbornly stands shoulder to shoulder with aspiration in Detroit. Decades of bitterness remain palpable. The drawbridges are standing up for those who want to leave this castle of poverty but are too poor to do so.

Once a thriving metropolis of some 1.8 million people with the highest per capita income in the United States, an update to the UN’s 2003 report on The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements would need to reassess its ranking of Detroit among the world’s most forsaken cities. With more than one-third its 140 square miles derelict or vacant, and nearly half its population functionally illiterate, the police warn visitors to “enter at your own risk.” Best that you drive your browser through Detroit’s streets to see the devastation.

The quality of poverty in Detroit is life-threatening. Detroit’s infant mortality rate is higher than any other city. The chances of surviving to age 1 are better in Mexico than in Detroit. After Camden, NJ, and East St. Louis, IL, Detroit ranks 3rd among the nation’s most dangerous cities.  Another recent report cited by Warikoo “shows that the poorest residents in southeast Michigan have a life expectancy rate significantly lower than the poor of comparable incomes in other major metro areas.”

A charitable viewpoint attributes Detroit’s free-fall to the collapse of the industrial-based economy, financial missteps, racial tensions and leadership lapses culminating in overwhelming debt that led the city into bankruptcy. An uncharitable viewpoint would blame Detroit’s decline to stupidity, corruption, racism, and cronyism.

Detroit is not the only dying city for which America is keeping a vigil. For example, Atlantic City’s Deathwatch is described as “‘The Lungs of Philadelphia’ facing respiratory failure.” It’s just that Detroit fell farther and faster than all the others.

It does not take an urban planning expert to draw harsh conclusions about Detroit’s rapid drop in population: 64 percent since 1950 with the remaining population shifting from 16 percent Black to more than 80 percent Black.

The poisoning of Flint’s water just up the road makes what’s happening in Detroit feel as dreadful as it looks. When President Ford denied federal assistance to keep New York from bankruptcy in 1975, the front page of the N.Y. Daily News screamed: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” That headline today might be less histrionic in describing the nation’s opinion of Detroit.

In 2015, Warikoo reported that the “huge increase in concentrations of poverty among minorities has concerned civic leaders who say it has the potential to lead to unrest as seen in Ferguson and Baltimore.” Living through Detroit’s turmoil in the late 1960s while attending the now-deserted Cooley High School, Warikoo’s warning rings true. After working for many years in international humanitarian relief, it’s difficult to avoid a more menacing comparison. Michael Brown shot dead laying face down in the middle of a Ferguson public street for four and a half hours brings to mind netherworlds like Mogadishu and Sarajevo where bodies left in the street sent a message.

It’s as if our nation is saying that if Detroit does not have an economic reason to exist, it doesn’t. In the words of Elmore Leonard, “There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees. And there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living.”

Ever since James Whitelaw surveyed the poor in Dublin in 1805, Henry Mayhew, Friedrich Engels, Jacob Riis, Dickens, and countless others ever since have cared enough to study and write about—and in Riis’s case, photograph—the plight of the poor to inspire smart and compassionate solutions. But the misery that persists in Detroit seems to set a historical precedent. Maybe this country should have a covenant rather than a contract with the people of Detroit and other failing cities.—James Schaffer