The Arithmetic of Desperation in Detroit

Lansing has it out for Detroiters. That’s William Scott’s estimation, at least. “The politicians in state government, in my opinion, care more about the suburbs than here in Detroit,” the retired auto worker told me a few years ago, sitting in a lawn chair perched alongside one of the city’s many barren avenues.

During the summer of 2009, I conducted ethnographic research in Detroit, speaking with dozens of residents about how they conceptualized their city’s economic strife. In my interviews, the perception of a hostile state and federal government was pervasive.

That finding might mean trouble for Kevyn Orr, the 54-year-old lawyer and business-restructuring specialist pegged by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder become emergency manager of Detroit’s finances. A Michigan law allows this state overseer to supersede local elected officials, cut costs, axe city departments, change union contracts, and sell public assets.

Detroit is chronically on the brink of running out of cash, and has over $14 billion in long-term debt. Governor Snyder declared a financial emergency on March 1st, and in public statements suggested that Detroit has brought the crisis upon itself by failing to spend within its means. “The city had 1.8 million people [in 1950], now it has 700,000 people, and government hasn’t adjusted accordingly,” he said in a video on his website. “We’re not going to bail out the City of Detroit financially,” he added in an interview.

But Detroit’s crisis is the product of decades of disinvestment and deindustrialization, forces of a scale greater than we can reasonably ask any city to adjust to. William Scott was right to be suspicious—Snyder’s tough talk suggests that Detroit is in for a destructive brand of number crunching.


Sixty years ago, Detroit was renowned as America’s industrial capital. Since then, a slow exodus of jobs—and after them, residents—has withered the city. “Most of the people who could afford to leave have already left,” Joe Darden, assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University told Remapping Debate. “Everybody who could, packed up and went to the suburbs years ago.”

The residents who remain are the portrait of an American underclass: over a third of Detroiters live in poverty and 17 percent of them are unemployed. Detroit is, to put it bluntly, a very impoverished city.

Because of such widespread hardship, the public services provided by the city government are essential, yet very difficult to fund. The city taxes both income and property at the highest rates Michigan law allows but Detroit residents hold little taxable wealth. The average home in the city is worth less than $80,000 and Detroiters still struggle to afford tax payments to the city—a color-coded map shows a fiery sea of delinquency and foreclosure.

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.


Snyder’s determination to balance the budget without state revenue signals a willingness to pay that drastic human cost.

The governor has been thin on details about how exactly he will bring the city back into the black, but the Detroit Free Press reported that any plan would probably include “drastic cuts” to city services. The rumor mill is abuzz with suggestions that the state intends to privatize the city’s water department; in the past, Snyder has proposed converting beloved Belle Isle (the closest thing Detroit has to Manhattan’s Central Park) into a state park with an entrance fee; and materials put out by the Governor ominously highlight the costliness of pensions and health benefits for retired city workers.

The obvious counterargument is that the emergency manager will succeed instead by cutting waste and dysfunction. To be fair, Detroit’s budget likely has plenty of it.

In the western Michigan town of Muskegon an emergency manager for the school system was able to trim some fat, selling off school buses that were going unused by the district. But deeper cuts were also made to balance the books: the public school system was converted into a charter system run by a private company, prompting some teachers to leave for other districts.

Meanwhile, in Ecorse, an emergency manager cut 40 percent of city staff and privatized emergency medical service. And in Pontiac, a litany of city services have been privatized and public assets—even city hall—have been put up for sale.

Similar cuts in Detroit would make the city even less desirable to current and prospective residents, further compounding the city’s revenue problems. Plus, balanced books won’t make Detroit any less poor, blighted, or violent. For that, the city would need a massive investment of resources. As Mark Binelli suggested in the New York Times last month, the federal bailout of near-bankrupt New York City in the 1970s could serve as a model.

“Detroit needs money,” he wrote.


In my research in 2009, one pattern I found was an acute sense that Detroit and its people have been deserted by American society. “This is the land of forgotten,” one Detroit resident told me. “This is where people don’t supposed to exist.”

Among industrialized countries, America is unique for its willingness to let people slip through the cracks, to be left behind. These Americans are often scattered and invisible but in Detroit they are concentrated, the city’s borders functioning as a sort of economic sieve. The Motor City may be our clearest view of what “left behind” looks like in America.

For that reason, Detroit carries enormous symbolism. The way we treat this chronically impoverished, mostly-black city is a reflection of the way we treat America’s most underprivileged. Governor Snyder has decided to effectively depose Detroit’s elected leaders and has dismissed the suggestion that anyone should open their pocketbook to help the city recover. Not only that, he has done it with widespread public acquiescence. What does that say about us?

Chris Lewis’s study of how Detroit residents make sense of their city’s economic crisis, “Talk about Crisis: Everyday Life in Detroit,” will be published this year in Sociological Insight. Follow him on Twitter @chris_lewis_.

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