All you have to do is look at the numbers to see clearly; there is the one Michigan over here, and then there’s that other Michigan over there. The one over here boasts an unemployment rate that is virtually parallel to the national average, and a poverty rate that is slightly above. The Michigan over there, however, is suffering from rates of unemployment and poverty that are more than twice the rest of the state.
So let’s do the math…
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Michigan unemployment rate is 5.4 percent, down from 13.1 percent in 2010 during the height of the recession. The poverty rate in 2014 was 16.2 percent, down slightly from 16.8 percent in 2010.
Now let’s go to Detroit. Detroit unemployment is roughly twice the statewide average at 10 percent, although it is down noticeably from 2010 when it was just under 30 percent. But despite the marked drop in unemployment, Detroit was ranked as the poorest big city in America in 2014 with 39.3 percent of the population living at or below the poverty level. Now stir in the fact that nearly 50 percent of the population was considered functionally illiterate in 2011, a statistic that has changed little since that time.
Now let’s go to Flint. The unemployment rate in Flint is 9.7 percent. In 2010 that figure was 27 percent. According to the U.S. Census, 40.1 percent of Flint residents are currently living in poverty, and that figure was taken before the water crisis so who knows what kind of further catastrophic effect that may have.
So what do these two cities have in common that have been at the top of national headlines for most of this year? Lots and lots of black people, most of them poor. As much as some of us might like to insist that the biggest stories to come out of Michigan this year is the Detroit turnaround and the steadily improving state economy, the Flint water crisis and the crisis that is Detroit Public Schools have kicked that narrative squarely where it hurts, and in plain view of a watchful nation.
To be sure, this is not a new development. About urban areas being neglected, that is. Indeed, the central issue focused on in recent years by a number of front page Michigan Chronicle Mackinac edition editorials was the need for more inclusion, and the need for an urban policy. In 2012, our headline was “Restoring Hope: Mackinac Policy Conference aims to put Michigan’s urban cities front and center.” In 2014, noticeably less optimistic, we asked the question, “Why Detroit vs. Them?” And last year we suggested that Michigan should “Divide the Economic Pie.”
This year, the headline essentially wrote itself in response to the twin disasters of the Detroit Public Schools and the Flint water crisis that have shoved our long awaited comeback narrative out of the headlines and off into a dark corner. After so many years of negative headlines and dealing with the embarrassment and anger of being considered a national punchline, the noticeable development and raw energy that has managed to revitalize Detroit’s downtown and surrounding area has raised the profile not only of Detroit but of the entire state of Michigan. Suddenly everyone was taking notice of all the good things that seemed to be happening here. So much so that Gov. Rick Snyder was once-upon-a-time said to be considering a presidential run, and was even gearing up to take Michigan’s success story on the road, presumably to trumpet everything that was going so right in his state.
But then everything went wrong. The Flint water crisis exploded, gaining recognition not only as the worst non-natural disaster in Michigan history, but also as one of the worst examples in memory of dysfunctional government at the state level. Despite the pleas of residents who had enough sense to know that foul-smelling brown and yellow water was not normal and represented a possible hazard, decisions were made on the state level that appeared to ignore those pleas in favor of saving some money. The tragic, and in some cases fatal, consequences of such heartless ignorance is now on full display for the entire nation to view with incredulity.
Equally as troubling is the disastrous condition of Detroit Public Schools which continues to wage a ridiculously steep uphill battle to provide quality education to Detroit’s students. School principals are being charged with corruption, school buildings are falling apart with buckling floors, crumbling ceilings and dead rodents in plain view, fed-up teachers and students walking out of classrooms to draw attention to the madness, and a deficit of over $500 million that hangs over everything – a deficit that accumulated throughout the tenure of four separate state-appointed emergency managers whose primary responsibility was to prevent this sort of financial chicanery from happening.
The combination of high-profile screw-ups that occurred under emergency management, both in Flint and at DPS, has managed to shift the discussion from how emergency management can be used as a viable tool for reconstruction of financially devastated municipalities to why emergency management should be avoided at all costs – or at least the way in which it was implemented in Michigan where the powers of all locally elected officials were effectively erased, along with the votes of a majority of state residents who voted by a margin of 52-48 percent (more than 80 percent of Detroiters voted in opposition) to get rid of emergency management in 2012, only to have their will ignored by Gov. Snyder who believed he knew what was best.
But then DPS and Flint hit the headines, and the question had to be asked: whose Michigan is turning around, and whose Michigan is being turned upside down?
There’s one Michigan, and then there’s the other. And that cannot continue.