In the Media

Detroit’s enormous underclass: The problem that’s taboo

September 13, 2017

Jack Lessenberry, from Detroit Metro Times, writes about creating a vibrant and financially secure city, using employment and population data from Detroit Future City’s 139 Square Miles report.

Detroit’s enormous underclass: The problem that’s taboo
By Jack Lessenberry
Detroit Metro Times

I was talking to Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon the other day about Detroit. Napoleon is a cheerful, smart, and decent man who was the last opponent left standing when Mike Duggan was elected mayor four years ago.

Napoleon is anything but bitter. “I never at any point thought that Mike would be a bad mayor. I just thought I would be a better mayor,” he said with a laugh.

Actually, he thinks Duggan has done a mostly fine job — and is supporting him for re-election. “He has taken on one of the toughest jobs in America,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how tough the problems are.”

Napoleon, who is also a former Detroit police chief, does think Duggan should talk and do more about crime — namely, add more police officers. Response rates are faster, but he said that means officers are stretched so thin they really don’t have a chance to do much preventive policing.

Frankly, he thinks he needs the county to give him more sheriff’s deputies as well, and provide better pay and benefit packages so he can be competitive in recruiting the very best.

But I then asked him about the big elephant in the room, the one problem somehow no one talks much about: Detroit’s enormous underclass.

That’s not a pretty term, but offhand, it’s hard to think of one better. We’re talking about adults with little education and fewer job or even life skills.

These are people who may or may not be literate. Many are not in the labor force at all. They have little or no history of work; of life skills, like getting somewhere on time every day; of earning money in a taxes-deducted-from-your-check way.

Others may have just given up in despair, defeated by the economy and difficult lives, as documented by University of Michigan poverty researcher Luke Shaefer in his stirring book: $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.”

Napoleon didn’t have an answer — though he agreed with my theory that something like the old Great Depression-era WPA could be used to put at least some of these folks to work.

Certainly they could be cleaning up parks and sites where buildings have been demolished, and doing other things; plus maybe learning work and lifestyle skills. But again, we don’t seem to be talking much about these folks.

Maybe that’s because we’ve been brainwashed to believe that government-created jobs are “socialism” and worthless — unless, of course, they are jobs created to potentially kill people.

Then they are the honored Armed Forces of the United States. There’s also a belief among even some liberals that we tried to help the underclass and lift them up during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and that those efforts totally failed.

But I think we don’t make aggressive efforts to reach and help the deep underclass because we don’t have a clue how to do it, and doing so would seem too costly and too hard.

But here’s a message for Mayor Mike Duggan, assuming he defeats the hapless and underfunded Coleman Young II in November: You have to try to solve this problem.

Otherwise, Detroit’s efforts to bring itself back to anything like a normal, vibrant, financially secure city are doomed.

What’s amazing to me is, again, how virtually all futuristic visions for Detroit utterly ignore these people. Years ago, a correspondent for Time magazine blandly told me he thought if we just stopped giving them welfare, they’d go away.

Well, they aren’t going away, nor should they. Detroit may be the most studied urban area in modern times. Nevertheless, when you consider the underclass, it isn’t easy to get anything like a precise estimate of how many folks that is.

Detroit Future City, a well-regarded nonprofit corporation that grew out of the city economic development department, published an excellent report last month: 139 Square Miles with a lot of useful information.

Click here to read the full article.


Detroit Strategic Framework
Economic Equity Dashboard