Acton Institute Powerblog

The Death Of Detroit’s Middle Class

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Detroit is bankrupt. The city government can’t pay its bills. Scores of empty houses and garbage-strewn lots greet anyone who drives down once-bustling streets. There is a lot of finger-pointing, and no easy answers. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle of what went wrong in Detroit.

At The Wall Street Journal, Steve Malanga has a few puzzle pieces to add, and they form the face of former-Mayor Coleman Young. Young was Detroit’s mayor for 20 years (1974-1994), and Malanga calls him a “radical trade unionist who ran as an antiestablishment candidate reaching out to disenfranchised black voters, Young lacked a plan except to go to war with the city’s major institutions and demand that the federal government save it with subsidies.” During Young’s 20 year mayorship, the city’s government became less and less effective, and the middle class (both black and white) got out.

Malanga contends that while Young was voted in as a candidate of reform, the reforms he brought were negative.

He divided the police department along racial lines, creating separate layoff lists of white and black officers. He and his handpicked police chief, William Hart, made clear that policing that resulted in too many arrests or citations in the black community would not be tolerated…Young’s divisive brand of governing extended to economic policy, such as it was. When General Motors agreed to build a new plant in the 1980s to help the city’s revival, Young and GM targeted the still vibrant, largely white ethnic neighborhood of Poletown to locate the facility. In one of the nation’s most infamous cases of eminent domain, the city sued in 1981 to raze some 1,500 homes and 144 businesses and displace 3,500 people.

Unfortunately for the people left in Detroit, their leadership didn’t get better. With the election of Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit was left with outright corruption instead of inept economic policies. Kilpatrick is currently serving out sentences for 24 counts of racketeering and fraud.

Today, Detroit is an estimated $18 billion in debt including a $3.5 billion pension shortfall. Its population has shrunk to under 700,000 from 1.84 million in 1950. Unemployment is at 16.3 %, and the number of jobs in Detroit has declined by more than half since Young became mayor in 1974. The city’s auto manufacturing base has shrunk despite the bailouts of GM and Chrysler, as those jobs moved to the likes of Kentucky and Alabama.

There are a lot of reasons Detroit is the way it is today, but Malanga makes it clear that Coleman Young did great harm to a once-great city.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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