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Want to save Detroit? Put its citizens to work

Jul 5, 2017

Everybody knows that Detroit has made it through bankruptcy, and that a remarkable coalition of people and politicians came together on a “Grand Bargain” to save the city.

But now we need to start thinking about the next hugely important step, one that’s largely been ignored: Finding a way to bring many thousands of forgotten people into the workforce and make them economically and socially productive citizens.

There’s lots of good news. Detroit is now shorn of most of its debt, the budget is in the black, and the city is moving forward in a way not seen in decades. 

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enormous problems. Nobody is confusing Detroit with Grand Rapids, let alone Shangri-la.

Many of these problems are well-known. Violent crime is still too high.  The city’s schools are still not where they should be, nor does the mayor have the tools he needs to get them there.

There’s also legitimate concern about how the city is growing – what you might call zoning concerns.

At this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Mayor Mike Duggan talked about how thousands of houses had been thrown up without any planning during World War II.  This led to economic disaster later, when the auto companies needed large tracts of land to build modern auto plants after the war. They had trouble finding space in the city, so they went to the suburbs, which was a major factor in Detroit’s economic decline.

Nancy Kaffer, a thoughtful columnist for the Detroit Free Press, has been arguing that the city needs to develop and stick to a master plan for zoning. Mayor Duggan’s critics, most notably his opponents in this year’s mayoral race, have argued that the city has neglected most of its neighborhoods at the expense of downtown and Midtown.

Whether or not that’s true, there's no disputing that many of those neighborhoods are in terrible shape. But that’s in large part because there are a lot of people who aren’t working, or aren't working anything like a conventional job.

Not only is unemployment twice what it is statewide, nearly half of all Detroit adults are neither employed nor even looking for work. Some have never worked at all. Twenty percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, lack even a high school degree, and many others lack job skills. We're talking at least tens of thousands of people.

Incredibly, most of the utopian plans for Detroit’s future pay little or no attention to the city's current residents. Well, guess what? They aren’t going away, and they aren’t going to become venture capitalists. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be productive citizens.

What we need is a major study of the skills and characteristics of the adult, working-age population of the city of Detroit – and a plan to put as many of them to work as possible.  Forget ideology; I don’t care if these are private-sector or public-sector jobs.

Work and an earned income vastly improve human dignity. Even jobs clearing vacant lots and mowing lawns would make Detroit a better place. I don’t know enough to know the details of how this should work.

But I do know if we don’t find a way for more people who have fallen through the cracks to join the economy, Detroit is never going to get there.