Number Crunch

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 residents about how they conceptualized their city’s economic strife. In my interviews with dozens of Detroiters, the perception of a hostile state and federal government was pervasive.

That finding spells trouble for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who announced on March 1 that he would appoint an emergency manager to assume control 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. In public statements, Governor Snyder has suggested that Detroit has brought the crisis on 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 long slow exodus of jobs—and 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 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 300 plus parks, only 57 will open this year

The budget 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, 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 retiree health benefits.

The obvious counterargument is that an emergency manager will succeed, instead, by trimming fat. They can balance the city’s books by cutting waste and dysfunction and, to be fair, Detroit’s budget likely has plenty of it.

But in other Michigan cities, emergency management has brought a harsh form of streamlining. In Pontiac, jobs have been cut and public assets—even city hall—have been put up for sale. In Ecorse, the city lost 40 percent of its staff and emergency medical service was privatized. In Muskegon, the school system’s emergency manager laid off almost the entire district’s staff and replaced the system with a charter school system run by a private company. 

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

This is the land of forgotten,” one Detroit resident told me. “This is where people aren’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, with the city’s borders functioning as a sort of geographic 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 impoverished, mostly-black city is a reflection of the way we treat America’s most underprivileged. Recently, Governor Snyder decided to effectively depose Detroit’s elected leaders and dismissed the suggestion that anyone should open their pocketbooks to help the city recover. Not only that, he did it with widespread public acquiescence. What does that say about us?


Chris Lewis is a Michigan native and reporter for Campus Progress. “Talk about Crisis: Everyday Life in Detroit,” his study of how Detroit residents make sense of their city’s economic crisis, will be published this year in Sociological Insight. Follow him on Twitter@chris_lewis.