The Culture of Class (an audio documentary)

Nov 23, 2011

If you think about it, class is a tricky word. What does it even mean? How do you define it?

Michigan Radio reporters and producers take a look at how social class impacts our lives - from the way we plan our cities and neighborhoods, to the way we’re treated in a courtroom.

We also hear from folks around the state as they share their thoughts on class.

Part 1

This idea of class – class warfare, class resentment. It’s everywhere. And yet, how are we defining class?

Education comes up a lot when we talk about class structure and social status.

Michigan’s economy is steadily becoming more “knowledge-based” than “factory based.” That means, in order to land a job and earn a decent salary, a college degree is that much more crucial.

Which means you’ve got to start pushing education at an early age.

Reporter Lindsey Smith tells us about a federal Head Start program, for families at or below the poverty level, which helps kids up to five years old pick up early math and reading skills.

But for many lower income teenagers, higher ed is out of reach.

Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra tells us about a group in Detroit that’s trying to help level the playing field.

It’s called Mosaic, it’s a nonprofit arts group made up of an acting ensemble and a choir. There are 160 students in Mosaic – the vast majority African American. They come from all over metro Detroit.

Now for some high school graduates, instead of college, they look to the military as their next big step in life. For some, maybe a step up. The G-I Bill after World War II is credited with helping to build the middle class in this country.

But that got Michigan Radio’s Mark Brush wondering if that’s still the case?

He went to find out who joins the military these days, and why, and whether their service to our country can help them get ahead in life.

We also visit one of the most polluted neighborhoods in Michigan. And, we hear why it’s difficult for some to leave.

Part 2

The divide between the haves and have nots is growing.  And the divide isn’t just a matter of bank accounts.

More and more it determines where you live.

So some people are moving on up and others are moving to the wrong side of the tracks.

Which led Michigan Radio’s Lester Graham to ask:  How did we get to this greater divide between classes?

He says, it started with racial segregation. 

After World War II, many white families left cities and moved to newly built suburbs.  Federal housing policy kept minorities out. Discriminatory lending practices called redlining also kept them out.  

We also hear about a pocket of southwest Detroit, where you will find one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the state, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

Reporter Rebecca Williams visited the neighborhood.

Now, the zip code that Rebecca visited – 48217 – not only will you find heavy industry and low income housing there. You will also find some of the lowest achieving schools in the state, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

A vast majority of districts participate, to some degree, in schools of choice, meaning they’ll accept some students from outside their district’s borders.

But Michigan Governor Rick Snyder doesn’t want schools of choice to just be an option for school districts. He wants to make it mandatory.

Reporter Sarah Cwiek caught up with some folks who don’t like that idea.

We also visit a working class neighborhood in Detroit where the residents are taking matters into their own hands and creating a good life for themselves.

Part 3

Now, take a minute, and think about your friends. Are you pretty similar,  maybe same skin color, same political views, make around the same amount of money?

Chances are you share lot in common with the people you hang out with.

So where do you go to mix and mingle with people in different socio-economic classes? Well for some, the answer is on the dance floor.

Reporter Kyle Norris tells us about a place in Inkster where income, education, employment, and race really don't matter.

Those things shouldn’t really matter either when you step into a courtroom. A crime is a crime.

But there is, perhaps, no moment in life when the difference in class is more apparent than when you are accused of a crime.  The wealthy hire the best lawyer they can.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided. 

The ACLU has compiled a number of stories of people who went to prison because they were not adequately defended.  David Tucker is one of the people profiled.  He talked to reporter Lester Graham about the day his trial began, and how his public defense attorney was surprised by the prosecution.

Governor Rick Snyder recently established a commission to investigate how to improve legal representation provided to low-income defendants.

As for David Tucker, his conviction was overturned by a federal court.  The charges were dismissed.  But that did not happen until his case made its way through the court system and after Tucker had served four years in prison.

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller also looked into how socioeconomics play out in Michigan’s courtrooms.

Throughout this show, we talked about money and what it gets us, or doesn’t.

For a lot of Americans, living the good life means having money in the bank, and a big house on a suburban cul-de-sac.

But for many, that’s just not going to happen in their lifetime.

And finally, Michigan Radio’s Sarah Hulett brings us to a corner of Detroit where people say you don’t need to be middle class to lead a good, prosperous life.