Detroit residents face a high cost of living, they want more jobs that match their skills and they want to start their own businesses but face financial barriers.
Those are just some of the findings from a new report by the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative, which compiled a decade’s worth of input from Detroiters on how they define economic well-being and what they say should be done to decrease poverty in the city. Residents identified barriers to living-wage jobs, schools, affordable housing and health care, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave recommendations for improvements.
“Our goal with this project was to really listen to the Detroiters” and make the voices of Detroiters “a source of data in trying to understand what is needed to drive economic mobility and reduce poverty in the city,” said Afton Branche-Wilson, lead researcher of the project, who added that this approach “sheds light on what survey data may not capture” for policymakers and philanthropic organizations.
The report is based on about 400 research sources from 2007 to 2019 where Detroiters have publicly spoken on issues. This includes neighborhood plans and reports, citywide reports, quotes from news articles, public comments at city meetings and 12 focus groups in Detroit neighborhoods that researchers said were not well represented in these sources.
About 36% of Detroiters live in poverty, according to census data.
“(Economic) mobility per Detroiters is a city where living wage jobs, good schools, affordable housing, accessible health care are available to residents equally and the tools needed to move your family up the economic ladder,” Branche-Wilson said.
Here are some findings from the report:
- Economic stability: Residents say low wages are a major barrier to economic stability. Securing social safety net benefits remains challenging, leading to feelings of marginalization and increased stress. They face a high cost of living, which includes rent, utilities, home and auto insurance and property taxes. Driving-related debts — tickets and fees — are burdensome, too.
- Employment and training: Three-quarters of residents said that providing job training was a very high or high priority in their neighborhood, according to a 2018 survey. There were 15 job openings per 100 unemployed Detroiters on the Detroit at Work website in 2019, one analysis found. Detroiters with disabilities, older residents and transgender Detroiters face difficulties in the city’s job market. Some immigrant Detroiters have limited English proficiency, leading to trouble navigating job applications and interviews. Residents cited financial barriers like the lack of startup capital, permit fees and business taxes to building strong small businesses.
- Transportation: An estimated 34% of residents didn’t have access to a car in 2017. Auto insurance premiums cost Detroiters $5,414 a year on average compared with $1,277 for Cleveland, Ohio, residents as of 2019, and maintenance costs can add up for Michigan drivers.
- Housing: Around 72,000 renter households in 2018 spent 30% or more of their income on rent, while 38,500 households spent 50% or more of their income on rent. Low- and moderate-income homeowners struggle to pay homeowner’s insurance, home repair costs and property taxes.
The report contains a host of recommendations from residents on how to remove barriers to economic mobility. These include:
- Raising the minimum wage, streamlining the application process for public assistance benefits, expanding affordable child care access, cutting utility costs, reducing driving fines and fees and increasing financial literacy for residents.
- Providing accommodations for those with disabilities, citywide access to permanent paid sick days and additional support for returning citizens.
- Ensuring educational and legal assistance for tenants to navigate landlord-tenant issues, more accessible home repairs and increased affordable housing.
- Making transportation improvements including lower auto-insurance premiums, low-income bus fares and van/shuttle services.
- Increasing the availability of health care services — including health clinics, drug rehabilitation centers and mental health providers — and lowering the cost.
Overwhelmingly, Detroiters “want more power and influence over economic revitalization plans and want to be considered partners in the work,” the report found.
“Residents see the process of deciding how money is spent and how policies are made as almost as important as the policies themselves,” Branche-Wilson said, pointing to a 2018 participatory budgeting process by Invest Detroit, a financial planning nonprofit, as a good example of residents as decision makers.
This is key during the COVID-19 crisis when barriers to affordable health care and well-paying jobs are magnified, she said.
Hundreds of Detroiters have died of complications from the novel coronavirus and nearly a quarter of those surveyed in July said they were out of work because of economic upheaval, according to the University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study.
“As policymakers think about recovery, we want them to focus on economic mobility in a holistic way,” Branche-Wilson said. “It shouldn’t just be a conversation about jobs. It should also be a conversation about health care, transportation and education, as well as a conversation about who’s at the table making decisions when we’re spending money to address these priorities.”
Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Detroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Click here to support her work.