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The Government Is Hungry: Detroit and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

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detroitDetroit home owners are being put out of their homes, but it’s not because of bankers. Then by who?

It’s the Detroit city government seeking to collect back real estate taxes. There are always tax foreclosures, but foreclosures are growing from 20,000 in 2012 to an expected 62,000 in 2015. Who is putting poor people on the streets in Detroit? The government.

There is a twist here based on the fact that Detroit homes have an old (and therefore way too high) assessed valuation that the taxes are based on. So for the homeowners, it’s easier to let the property go into a tax foreclosure and then buy it back at a tax sale than it is to pay the overdue taxes based on assessed property values that have fallen 70% in recent years. People follow incentives.

We have a narrative in America stating that all financial evils come from the banks. Even Scott Burns used his space to hammer the banks for the 2008 collapse. His proof: The fines that large banks have paid to the government.

He’s not crazy, but it is wild for him to assign blame only to the banks. It’s circular reasoning for government to blame the banks, fine them, and use the fines as proof of guilt. If you think of big banks as voracious as lions, blame their tamers when they get loose.

For a contrast, I was reminded of chapter 5 of The Grapes of Wrath, which does hammer the bankers. Shmoop.com offers a good summary of the conditions in the Great Depression and how Steinbeck’s novel highlights the realities:

When landowners kick tenant farmers off of the land, they tell them that the banks are hungry, that the bank is part of a hungry monster that cannot be sated. The tractors become the “snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines” (5.41).

When the tenant farmers try to figure out who is in charge, who they can complain to, the tractor-monsters simply say, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up'” (5.63).

There is no one, specific person to blame, no single person in charge. The banks in the East are hungry for money, but we never get to see the faces of their agents, we never meet a specific landowner or banker. We only know they exist, and that they are turning families out of their homes.

Ok, that happened. But now it’s the government.

So take the ‘banks are hungry” and substitute “the government is hungry.” It’s time to update our national narrative to include all the hungry players.

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John Teevan After growing up in Chicago and graduating from Princeton (economics) where he became a Christian, John Teevan focused on ministry for 35 years. His interests in social action developed through that era, and now he leads in starting urban college sites, including one in Detroit, for Grace College. He also is the executive director of and has taught in Grace's Indiana Correctional Education program. Grace has contracts to provide education in the northern region of Indiana's state prisons. Fairly well-traveled because of his mission interests, he and Jane live in Winona Lake, Indiana. Their three grown son have lived and worked around the world.

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