Skip to main content
Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Poverty and joblessness, fuel for '67 riot, even worse today

While Detroit has seen positive changes in the police department and the inclusion of African Americans in civic life since 1967, the decline of manufacturing and flight of people over the past five decades have contributed to significantly higher levels of unemployment and impoverished residents in the city. Reynolds Farley, a retired University of Michigan sociologist, notes that in 1950, Detroit had the nation's "most prosperous black population."

But the city's black community is now one of the nation’s poorest, with much of the blame placed on decades of job loss, especially in auto and government jobs, and the migration of middle-class white and African Americans to the suburbs, where jobs are more plentiful. Below, some jarring numbers showing how far black Detroiters have economically regressed since the troubles of 1967.

Percent of owner-occupied households

In 1967, housing conditions for black Detroiters were substandard to those of white Detroiters. But home ownership for black Detroiters in the late 1960s and early 1970s was higher than for any black community in the United States even though 120,000 black Detroiters still lived in slum conditions during the riot era.

Five decades later, as Detroit became much poorer, the percentage of residents owning homes has dropped, especially among whites. The foreclosure crisis after 2005 hit both white and black Detroiters hard, and cost taxpayers millions. The Detroit News reported last year that there have been 65,000 mortgage foreclosures in the city since 2005. Of those, 36,400 homes (56 percent) were blighted or abandoned, with some 13,000 slated for demolition, at a cost of $195 million.

Median income: African Americans lose ground

Just after the riot, when black Detroiters’ income was three-quarters of white income, the black community in Detroit was one of the most prosperous in the nation. Today, though, black income in Detroit has slipped to a little more than half of white income, as African American elsewhere have made gains. According to the Pew Research Center, since the 1960s, household-income growth for African-Americans has outpaced that of whites. Median adjusted household income for blacks is now 59.2% that of whites, up slightly from 55.3% in 1967 (though in dollar terms the gap has widened).

People in poverty: Twice the percentage as 1967

By 1967, poverty was the focus of “wars” at both the federal and local levels. President Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass extensive anti-poverty legislation in 1964 and 1965. Even before the federal government stepped in, Detroit Mayor Jerry Cavanagh, who took office in 1962, became one of the first big-city bosses to enact programs to help poor residents, including medical and dental services, job banks and work training. After the riot, though, critics raised questions about the effectiveness of Cavanagh’s anti-poverty efforts.

Aggressive government action to help the poor faded over the decades, and Detroit continued to lose jobs at a steady rate. For many years, Detroit has been one of the nation’s poorest big cities. By 2016, the city had received international attention for its large number of home foreclosures and water shutoffs, and a study this year published in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed life expectancies for Detroiters – 77.7 years -- ranked among the shortest for residents of U.S. cities.

Unemployment: Far higher today

The flight of industry from Detroit began after World War II, and the city lost 165,000 jobs between 1955 and 1963. But for a few years before 1967 the local economy boomed, and Mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s manpower programs helped keep the unemployment rate low. Joblessness, though, was growing again by the time of the civil disturbance in 1967. The city’s 6.2 unemployment rate then was the highest it had been in five years, according to historian Sidney Fine. Unemployment in the riot areas was about twice the overall city rate, and among youths ages 18 to 24 the rate was estimated to be between 25 and 30 percent. In academic studies of the disturbance, experts found a strong correlation between self-identified rioters and unemployment, especially for rioters who had been out of work for a long time.

By 2016, five more decades of deindustrialization had taken its toll, especially on black Detroiters. High-tech jobs have grown, but there has been no major job creation for the low-educated. In April of this year, city unemployment stood at 9.1 percent, far higher than 1967, but a dramatic improvement for the decade. In 2009, city unemployment exceeded 25 percent and just two years ago stood at 16.3 percent. But the black/white disparity remains. In 2014, the most recent year available for racial comparisons, 4.9 percent of white men in Detroit were unemployed, compared with 14.4 of black men. White women unemployment was at 5.3 percent, black women at 11.9 percent.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; U.S. Census; "Violence in the Model City," by Sidney Fine; "Divided Detroit," Reynolds Farley, Sheldon Danziger and Harry J. Holzer; New York Times; Detroit Free Press.


Chapter 3: Poverty

Today, and throughout this year, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC) will explore whether the social and economic conditions that sparked the tragic events of 1967 have improved in Detroit. In the wake of recent unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore and other American cities, such questions are hardly academic. Today's topic: Poverty.

DJC Partner Content

How impactful was this article for you?

Only donate if we've informed you about important Michigan issues

See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:

  • “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
  • “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
  • “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.

If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Pay with PayPal Donate Now