Detroiters in poverty face nearly insurmountable obstacles

Politicians and media reports indicate Detroit is in the middle of an economic resurgence. That’s true for the central business districts. That’s not the case for many residents in the poorest neighborhoods.

“Some people just don’t have the hope. And, especially living in an environment like this, it’s kind of hard. It’s kind of hard. It’s very stressful,” said Alita Burton.

Many residents are trapped in poverty because they cannot get past obstacles such as getting the training they need and the transportation to jobs.

A government survey recently showed 57 percent of Detroit children live in poverty. 39 percent of all households are impoverished. But some neighborhoods are worse than others.

The most impoverished census tract in the city is in the Chandler Park area on the city’s east side. While Detroit’s downtown has been booming, this section of town has seen increased poverty. Recent data posted by Detroitography show since 2000 the area has seen one of the largest increases in racially concentrated poverty. Loveland Technology data show of the 292 homes and lots, only 23 are privately owned. The rest are held by the city, the county, the land bank, or the federal government.

Alita Burton lives in the Chandler Park area. She says getting a job in Detroit is difficult.

“Because a majority of all the jobs are taken by individuals that stay in different cities which knocks you out of the competition,” Burton explained.

She’s got a part-time job. It’s the best she’s been able to find as of yet to support her and her nine-year-old son.

Transportation an obstacle to getting a job

She’s among the more fortunate in her neighborhood. Twenty-six percent of Detroit households do not own a car. Burton does.

“I just be praying to keep it rolling, keep it going,” she said.
But, even with a car, auto insurance is a big obstacle.

“For no-fault, I had paid $500 for no-fault for only seven days coverage. That’s just for seven days.”

The cost for Detroit residents is somewhere between two thousand and five thousand dollars a year. That’s about double of the surrounding suburbs.

It’s a major problem for a lot of people living in Detroit.

At a Chandler Park Neighbors and Partners Association meeting, Walter Brown said one of his adult daughters is living with him. He explained she’d been in and out of jobs because of the cost of owning a car.

“She can’t afford the insurance. And, I think that’s what comes down on a lot of young people with being able to find a job if they don’t have the transportation method to get there.”

And Detroit Department of Transportation buses are often not a solution. Even with improvements in the bus service, many employers won’t hire people who depend on public transportation because they don’t consider it to be reliable.

That means for many people options for work are limited to nearby retail stores. Brown says that’s not enough.

“I mean, these little jobs at the restaurants and little party stores, (for) a single mom it’s very difficult for her to make a living off of that and raise the kids.”

People who live in public housing projects face bias

For people who live in Parkside public housing there’s another obstacle.

Zachary Rowe heads up Friends of Parkside. He says even though there’s a strip mall right across the street, the residents have a difficult time getting a job in any of the stores.

“One has to do with sort of the stigma or the perception of people that live in Parkside as local business view them. You would think it would be an advantage or a benefit to say you live in Parkside because you don’t have those transportation issues. But in some cases it’s actually a negative just because of how the residents are perceived.”

Rowe says his group looked at the economic impact of the spending power of the residents. While many shopped at nearby stores and restaurants, very few were able to get a job at the establishments.

A boycott was considered at one time, but shopping elsewhere was more than an inconvenience for many of the residents. Because of transportation issues, it was nearly impossible. There wasn’t enough support to make a boycott successful.

Jobs downtown

Since downtown is booming, you might think these residents would be headed there for work. Keven Boyle is an author and history professor at Northwestern University. He grew up on the east side of Detroit. He says there are few opportunities for Detroit residents in downtown.

“Because what the downtown is doing is it’s creating jobs that poor people aren’t going to get. It’s creating high tech jobs in a city in –at least by one estimate that I’ve seen say- 47 percent of the adults in the city of Detroit are functionally illiterate. Now, that’s not going to translate into high tech jobs downtown,” he explained.

A construction company owner who lives near Chandler Park says he hires young Detroit workers, but he finds some of them can barely read or solve math problems on the job.

Zachary Rowe with Friends of Parkside says he’s sometimes experienced the same problem with kids who went to both Detroit Public Schools and charter schools.

“We have summer youth workers that work with us during the summer and they’re between the ages of 14 and 24 and I’m sort of surprised when it comes to some of the students have trouble doing basic math problems,” Rowe said.

But one researcher says downtown’s recent prosperity could still mean jobs for people who don’t have high tech skills.

“As more people work in downtown Detroit, they’re going to need a lot of services: lunch time and, you know, there’s going to be security services. There is some amount of jobs that don’t require and advanced education that will be generated by more employment in Detroit,” said Reynolds Farley, a Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan.

For people who live in the Chandler Park area, downtown is more than seven miles away. That means transportation is again a problem.

Until institutional barriers are solved, little hope

Kevin Boyle at Northwestern says it’s good that Detroit’s downtown areas are doing better, but until all of Detroit can share in the newfound prosperity, too many are being left behind.

“And, that’s what you’re seeing inside the city of Detroit today. You’re seeing, to a really dramatic extent, an economic revival in the city of the Detroit that is not completely white, but is white dominated and a dramatic level of poverty and inequality for large numbers of African-Americans who live in the city.”

Boyle says Detroit must find solutions for transportation, work skills training, and the other obstacles to residents in the neighborhood. Until they’re able to get good paying jobs, Boyle says there’s very little to celebrate.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Greg Thrasher
Thu, 06/16/2016 - 1:38pm
So tired of the doom and gloom narratives ...When will Bridge published some commentaries that advances solutions and elevate the souls of Black Folks??????????????
Garland Hardeman
Thu, 06/16/2016 - 2:30pm
This is a outstanding article with many important facts and information about the current status of the city of Detroit residents. I am extremely hopeful that the next mayor of the city of Detroit in 2018 will take up the mantle of leadership to address these problems in an all encompassing manner. They should not allow individual billionaires to dictate solely the future of this city with public tax dollars being used for Arenas, soccer stadiums and only their specific business interest.
Fri, 06/17/2016 - 6:16pm
Same thing in Lansing on a smaller scale than Detroit, a rich developer has the mayor in his back pocket and has gotten nearly everything he wants in tax breaks etc. for overpriced apartment buildings etc.
Alan Blackburn
Sun, 06/19/2016 - 7:16am
Many who grow up in poverty have a huge barrier in getting out of it. We have many barriers up here as well. Commissioners refuse to pay for transportation, people who live in poverty cannot afford to live in town so they live at odds with each other. The usual naysayers will complain about welfare recipients yet, will offer no solutions.
Sun, 06/19/2016 - 3:04pm
Has anyone looked into some of the bike-share programs for the residents to get to the mass transit or bypass it. Many USA cities in Northern climates have it during the months without snow/little snow. Example cities include Chicago, Madison, WI, and Boston. I was in Boston when they started it and eventually it has been growing to other communities, nearby Cambridge is now offering year-round operations. I think it was around the time of an article in one of the Detroit newspapers where a reporter mentioned bicycle riding on a major Detroit road/street and he lost control and slid across several lanes, but being in Detroit there was no traffic, so he didn't suffer any major injuries. In Boston, the heavier traffic was an issue. Detroit might even be able to get extra grant money to fix road infrastructure if they include bicycles/pedestrians. With the high insurance rates, a car share program may or may not be viable. If citizens can bike ride March-Nov. 30th, they can save up for auto insurance and/or a used car or other things to improve their lives in the long term. Maybe the transit system can see about ride share options including dial-a-ride to and from high poverty areas and include attempts to bring ride-share programs to the area. If unemployment stays high, maybe their should be some work done on offering more Summer and the a few months before and after Summer training and education programs. Reading and math are important skills for survival, without them one can easily be cheated and/or manipulated. One of my grandmothers who lived through the Great Depression mentioned she became a teacher because during the Great Depression they offered free classes to get a teacher's certificate; so offered extra training/education to an area with low employment is not anything new; maybe include First Aid classes to help prepare people for emergencies, nursing assistant and other medical field positions. Help people get the skills needed for a good job, including ones that don't require college (i.e. truck driving, welder, mechanic, ...). Increase mentoring and apprenticeship programs, get the national labor force data and train people for the jobs with the greatest needs and match people once trained with areas that have openings (get tourist and travel information on the area so people can judge which areas they would prefer moving to). If the country plans to limit job visas: prepare people for work that will open up and promote the area to businesses that are looking for the talent you are developing (in worked for India).
Sun, 06/19/2016 - 3:51pm
In some ways its easier to get out of poverty today than ever before. Show up, on time and do what you are told to, day in day out. This will differentiate you from 95% of others. As an employer this is rarer than anyone will think. If you are relieable you won't stay poor.
Mon, 06/20/2016 - 4:17pm
Matt - You say "show up on time" but car insurance costs $2,000 per year and buses are unreliable - that's structural discrimination and prevents people from "showing up on time".
Tue, 06/21/2016 - 1:21pm
Lansing tried a bike share program in the past few years and it was a total disorganized mess, they threw in the towel not long after they started it. Some cities have got things together, others don't.