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Constructed By Policy Not People: Detroit Urban Poverty

Ever wonder why Detroit is the way it is? Get the low down.

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Detroit has a bad rep. A simple Internet search will reveal how negative peoples' perceptions of the city are. When considering the recent changes happening downtown, it makes sense to dispel some of that rhetoric. But, if we’re honest, there is a reason it exists and it’s not pretty.

To understand why Detroit is the way it is, here are 4 things that contributed to the what we see today:

1. Let's start with the jobs

Walter P. Reuther Labor Archives at Wayne State University / Via

From the outset, Black Detroiters were set an economic disadvantage relative to their white counterparts. There were numerous, institutional barriers that stunted income potential for working-class Blacks in Detroit.

Fierce segregation laws contributed to racial discrimination in the workforce. As a result, there was a large income disparity between working-class Black Detroiters and working-class White Detroiters.

Well paying jobs available to working-class White Detroiters were often not available to Black Detroiters. When working-class Black Detroiters and White Detroiters did have the same job, White Detroiters were paid more.

Thomas Sugrue, award winning author and NYU professor, cites reports from the 1951 Michigan State Employment Service (MSES) in his book stating how 55.5% of hiring practices included discriminatory clauses. The1948 MSES reported, "Discrimination in hiring is on the increase...Despite a serious labor shortage labor shortage in Detroit, employers refuse to employ qualified non-white workers" (Sugrue, 94).

2. Then the rent disparity

The Union Marches / Via

Black Detroiters pay more for housing, furthering their relative impoverishment to White Detroiters.

This disparity in rent costs existed despite the expectation that Black Detroiters live in more antiquated neighborhoods further from the workplace due to racial zoning housing boundaries. Policy effectively trapped Black Detroiters in neighborhoods that lacked investment with no prospects of future investment.

3. Unfair housing played a huge role

Elizabeth Conley | The Detroit News / Via

Racial housing segregation confined Black Detroiters to lowest quality houses.

Landlords often took advantage of the high demand and low supply of housing in segregated Detroit by cramming multiple families into single-family homes. The combination of overuse and antiquated infrastructure of the houses resulted in housing deterioration.

Attempts at creating affordable, public housing met intense racial backlash due to the perception poor, Black Detroiters will pollute nearby White neighborhoods with crime and devalue neighborhoods with their presence.

Black residents (regardless of income) were systematically denied access to loans to renovate housing. Landlords have little to no incentive to assist in renovations so the houses in Detroit (specifically the antiquated houses in Black neighborhoods) continue to deteriorate.

4. Upward mobility is not a possibility: Redlining and racial zoning

These policies prevent people of color moving out of poor housing conditions and upward mobility.

Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) use this housing deterioration as justification for legally designating minority neighborhoods (primarily Black in Detroit) as "hazardous," marking residents in these areas ineligible for loans. This is known as "redlining" and it happened all over the country.

Since residents of redlined areas (disproportionately people of color) weren’t able move out of these poor living conditions because of this redlining and racial zoning restrictions, their chance at upward mobility was stunted even further.

This may seem like ancient history, but it wasn’t that long ago. The effects are still plaguing Detroit today.

Since these occurrences disproportionately affect people of color (mostly Black residents in Detroit), it could be easy to perceive this as a result of personality traits like perceived "laziness" or "lack of hard work". But the reality is, this is the result of over 50 years of institutionalized, legally-condoned policies that systematically trapped many Black Detroiters in poverty.

So keep this information in mind and don't perpetuate the false, misleading, explanation that blames the victims of racialized poverty in urban environments.

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