India Jackson, a lifelong Detroiter, earned her high school diploma and a certified nurses assistant certification in the same year. (India Jackson photo)

For every 20 hours of schoolwork that India Jackson completed, the more money she earned from the City of Detroit.

“That was a(n) extra $200 in my household that was helping me out every single week, whether it was bills, whether it was helping with food or anything, like that really helped so much,” she said. “Like, what other place actually pays you to go to school?”

Related: City of Detroit, Schools to partner and help adults earn high school diploma

The 34-year-old Detroiter recently earned her high school diploma through the City’s Learn to Earn program, which supports adults who want to finish their high school coursework. Since obtaining her high school diploma in June, Jackson said she earned a certified nursing assistant certificate, secured a new job she enjoys, and brings home a larger paycheck.

That’s exactly what the City wants to see — more residents moving into the economic middle class. From a tax perspective, the City benefits when residents, and non-residents, are working in Detroit and earning higher incomes. Meanwhile, Detroit’s jobs outlook is improving faster than anticipated. 

However, Detroiters, especially those in the service industries, continue to earn less even as more jobs and higher salaries become available in the city. The City is developing short-term workforce development programs to support Detroiters’ career growth, and large corporations have made deals with the City to hire more residents. Nevertheless, Detroit is still years away from closing the wage and wealth gap.

An economic forecast from the University of Michigan predicts an average wage growth over the next five years. The average salary for a payroll job in Detroit is expected to reach $83,000 within the next five years. However, the average wage for a Detroit resident is expected to only increase from $36,100 in 2020 to $40,700 in 2026.

The Black-white wage gap

The City, experts and residents say a lack of educational attainment is a barrier to higher incomes, but the issue is tangled in a web of inequitable social and economic issues.

“It is very complicated to understand why people don’t have jobs, right? I mean, the reasons are as numerous as there are people,” said Dana Williams, chief of staff and director of employer engagement for Detroit at Work. “But we also know that high school equivalency is a significant gap for many, and we know that employers typically require that to get a job.”

Just 23 percent of the city’s full-time workers holds at least a bachelor’s degree. Full-time city workers with a high school diploma “substantially outnumber college graduates,” even though earning a college degree is a predictor of the ability to earn a middle-class living, according to the report. 

Detroit’s small middle class is in part a result of city and regional inequities that have historically made it more difficult to build and sustain wealth. African-American Detroiters are more likely to experience unemployment compared to white people who live in the region. Traditional hiring protocols have also excluded qualified workers, and Black entrepreneurs have had a more difficult time finding start-up funding or garnering bank loans to support small businesses.  

Other factors, like housing and food insecurity and lack of reliable transportation, contribute to low-wage employment. That’s why the City prioritized Detroiters struggling with housing issues for job support last summer. Williams said there are 5,000 open positions available on the Detroit At Work website, with more than 1,000 employers participating. The pay ranges for these positions are $15 to $50 an hour, for entry-level up to director level positions, though Detroiters are not guaranteed the positions. 

Which jobs program will work?

The City also opened career centers in every council district just before the pandemic to create walkable access to job information. Like most cities, Detroit has offered tax incentives to corporations to consider hiring local residents. Williams says discussions between the City and those employers have included requests to curtail some employment requirements in order to give Detroiters a better chance of getting hired.

Last year, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced his People Plan, a $50 million fund to decrease gun violence, increase job-training programs, and help Detroiters complete their high school education. Financing for the People Plan is limited to a few years through several corporate and philanthropic entities. 

“The goal is to help 2,000 Detroiters a year to either enter in, or stay in, the middle class,” Williams said. “And we’re very intentional about saying that it is the intent of the People Plan to improve economic conditions for Black and Brown Detroiters.”  

Several workforce development programs have also been developed by the City — including Learn to Earn and Skills for Life, a new job-training program that will pay applicants to work part time while training for the position.

Jackson learned about the City’s Learn to Earn program during a mayoral press conference last summer. She began to keep up with Duggan’s announcements, and when an adult education program was announced with no age limits, Jackson called the number to register right away.

Learn to Earn was the “perfect” program for Jackson, a single mother of four who said she had looked for pathways to obtain her diploma the last nine years. Through the City, she could take classes on her own time. She was given a laptop and internet assistance. There wasn’t a daily schedule to attend classes or submit work, and she was able to work while she studied. If she needed child care assistance or bus fare, the City obliged.

“It has made it possible for me to apply for any job and have confidence, and it’s a good program to have on your resume,” Jackson said. “It makes it look like you made the extra effort to go above and beyond what you needed to do.”

And, her income has increased, “dramatically,” Jackson said, laughing with glee.

Up to 600 adults can enroll in Learn to Earn this year, and Williams says she hopes to see up to 1,000 Detroiters enroll in Skills for Life each year once it’s introduced in November. However, the programs have been allotted funding for only three years.

So, how much of Detroit’s wage and wealth gap is the City responsible for addressing?

“The City has an absolute priority and responsibility to always prioritize these initiatives and programs that will address the kind of inequities that we see in the city,” said Esmat Ishag-Osman at the Citizens Research Council. “But the reality is that the City can only do so much, right? What the City can do is be more aggressive (and) be more intentional about the kind of procurement deals that they acquire with big companies.”

Helping Detroit sustain itself

Ishag-Osman said the ongoing wage and wealth gap in Detroit is compounding for longtime Detroiters who have had to pay for housing and tax troubles. He said “new age” Detroiters, often in their early to mid-20s with some college education, can typically afford to take advantage of the new restaurants, participate at events at the stadiums, and live in or near downtown areas.

Unfortunately, Ishag-Osman said, that’s unsustainable long term, as trends have shown people moving farther away as they age and leave Detroit for suburban towns that offer services and amenities that match the tax rate. He said adult education programs are useful, but expensive. If equity were built into the system, fewer Detroiters would be playing catch-up, more newcomers would stay, and the City’s tax base would grow, he said.

“What is going to incentivize people to settle in Detroit, not just move in Detroit for three to six years and then move out?” he said.

For now, ensuring Detroiters have access to education and training programs to potentially secure higher paying jobs is the City’s plan.

As Jackson worked on obtaining her high school diploma, she enrolled in a certified nursing assistant program and ended the summer with two new educational attainments. Her previous work experience was in the restaurant industry, but once she completed her high school coursework, she landed a job at a local assisted-living facility.

“My kids saw that I was working extra hard, like, ‘OK, Mom is trying to get her diploma,” Jackson said.

Now that she’s been through the process, Jackson says she wants to see more Detroiters take advantage of programs like Learn to Earn. She doesn’t think enough outreach has been done, and said not many people know that support programs are available.

Jackson said she no longer has to work extremely long hours, isn’t burned out, and can spend more time with her children. She also wants to continue learning. Jackson’s next goal is to obtain a Licensed Practice Nurse certification.

“Instead of having a job, I have a career now,” Jackson said. “It’s a whole different ballgame now, and I love it.”

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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