Detroit has lost more than half of its population since the 1960s. Wave after wave of families looking for larger homes, better schools, safer streets and more amenities have beat a path to the suburbs. A shrinking number of suburban residents visit or work in Detroit and, therefore, feel less connected to it. Worse, the prospect for a reversal of the exodus and the apathy is not promising.
The out-migration was certain to produce long-term consequences, not the least of which were massive job losses and the departure of the middle class. Those left behind are largely poor and black, uneducated and practically unemployable. Detroit is unquestionably less genteel.
Political leaders have vainly struggled to arrest the decline in population. However, every strategy for stopping the stampede across 8 Mile Rd. has proved at best symbolic, and in the end, futile. Even the best ideas for ending the flight have been met with resistance from within.
Advocates of the poor fanatically oppose any initiatives and investments intended to attract and retain the middle class. They argue that the spending of precious city resources should be used to boost economic opportunities or social services for the chronically disadvantaged, which make up more than one-third of the total population.
Although well-intentioned, the zealous protectors of the status quo don’t seem to understand that the demographic hemorrhaging of the educated and wealthy fuels a downward spiral that ultimately take a disproportionate toll on those who need jobs and economic growth the most. Demanded are low-income rather than market rate housing. Wage rates are artificially manipulated to pay low-income residents above their skill level, which ultimately adds to the growing rate of unemployment.
Within this misguided strategy is a failure to recognize that with the vanishing middle class –black and white – went the demand for housing. Housing values fell precipitously. Abandonment and blight increased. Community institutions and social networks disappeared. Role models fled an increasingly hostile environment that no longer appealed to middle class values or to businesses that hired people from the local talent pool. The city’s political power and clout with regional, state and federal governments evaporated.
A diminishing group of trapped, law-abiding, productive households now tries to make due with a declining tax base. This makes it considerably more difficult and costly to educate Detroit children effectively, to combat crime and ensure safety. The result is self-perpetuating despair and further isolation of the poor from the mainstream.
Only an economically diverse population will revive Detroit financially and socially. But there is no real evidence of any meaningful “back-to-the-city” movement. Young married couples and empty nesters are no more likely than families with children to place a high value on what little Detroit has to offer. While the city has great sports events and some of the best cultural and entertainment choices found anywhere, patrons tend to be occasional visitors rather than residents. It is wishful thinking to believe suburban middle-class households of any ethnic group will return to Detroit in large numbers.
The forces that contribute to the city’s population losses may be too strong and pervasive to be reversed. Anyone with a choice of where they live and pay taxes will not tolerate chronically poor basic city services such as street maintenance, trash collection, snow removal, unattended parks and shuttered recreation facilities. As long as Detroit has a reputation as a dangerous place to live, no one will want to stay.
Regional government would be one possible solution. However, regionalism has no constituency in the city or suburbs and will never come to pass. The hostility and entrenchment among groups outside the city’s political decision-making process only grows with Detroit’s worsening condition. And despite claims to the contrary, history has shown that the success of the region is not dependent on Detroit’s survival.
Suburban residents and politicians might be open to regional cooperation if they believed the crisis in Detroit threatened their way of life. So far, the proliferation of undereducated, unskilled residents and violent crime in the city has yet to create a predicament severe enough to motivate suburbanites to venture out of their comfort zone.
That means the fortunes of Detroit will get substantially worse before they get marginally better.