The Wrong Lessons From Detroit’s Bankruptcy
By Joseph E. Stiglitz – August 11, 2013
The New York Times
When I was growing up in Gary, Ind., nearly a quarter of American workers were employed in the manufacturing sector. There were plenty of jobs at the time that paid well enough for a single breadwinner, working one job, to fulfill the American dream for his family of four. He could earn a living on the sweat of his brow, afford to send his children to college and even see them rise to the professional class.
Cities like Detroit and Gary thrived on that industry, not just in terms of the wealth that it produced but also in terms of strong communities, healthy tax bases and good infrastructure. From the stable foundation of Gary’s excellent public schools, influenced by the ideas of the progressive reformer John Dewey, I went on to Amherst College and then to M.I.T. for graduate school.
Today, fewer than 8 percent of American workers are employed in manufacturing, and many Rust Belt cities are skeletons. The distressing facts about Detroit are by now almost a cliché: 40 percent of streetlights were not working this spring, tens of thousands of buildings are abandoned, schools have closed and the population declined 25 percent in the last decade alone. The violent crime rate last year was the highest of any big city. In 1950, when Detroit’s population was 1.85 million, there were 296,000 manufacturing jobs in the city; as of 2011, with a population of just over 700,000, there were fewer than 27,000.
So much is packed into the dramatic event of Detroit’s fall — the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history — that it’s worth taking a pause to see what it says about our changing economy and society, and what it portends for our future.
Failures of national and local policy are by now well known: underinvestment in infrastructure and public services, geographic isolation that has marginalized poor and African-American communities in the Rust Belt, intergenerational poverty that has stymied equality of opportunity and the privileging of moneyed interests (like those of corporate executives and financial services companies) over those of workers.
At one level, one might shrug: companies die every day; new ones are born. That is part of the dynamics of capitalism. So, too, for cities. Maybe Detroit and cities like it are just in the wrong location for the goods and services that 21st-century America demands.
But such a diagnosis would be wrong, and it’s extremely important to recognize that Detroit’s demise is not simply an inevitable outcome of the market.
For one, the description is incomplete: Detroit’s most serious problems are confined to the city limits. Elsewhere in the metropolitan area, there is ample economic activity. In suburbs like Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the median household income is more than $125,000. A 45-minute drive from Detroit is Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, one of the world’s pre-eminent hubs of research and knowledge production.
Detroit’s travails arise in part from a distinctive aspect of America’s divided economy and society. As the sociologists Sean F. Reardonand Kendra Bischoff have pointed out, our country is becoming vastly more economically segregated, which can be even more pernicious than being racially segregated. Detroit is the example par excellence of the seclusion of affluent (and mostly white) elites in suburban enclaves. There is a rationale for battening down the hatches: the rich thus ensure that they don’t have to pay any share of the local public goods and services of their less well-off neighbors, and that their children don’t have to mix with those of lower socioeconomic status.
The trend toward self-reinforcing inequality is especially apparent in education, an ever shrinking ladder for upward mobility. Schools in poorer districts get worse, parents with means move out to richer districts, and the divisions between the haves and the have-nots — not only in this generation, but also in the next — grow ever larger.
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