Why Detroit’s middle class matters now, more...

Why Detroit’s middle class matters now, more than ever

A new report makes the case that growing the city’s prosperity hinges on increasing economic stability for the residents that are here and creating opportunities for families to move into the middle class.

“The growth of the African-American middle class can be used as a key indicator for tracking how equitably the city is growing,” the authors write.

Detroit used to be a stronghold of black prosperity and homeownership, in part due to the prevalence of well-paying auto industry jobs last century. As recently as 1980, 40 percent of the population was middle class, close to the national average. Now, our majority black city has the highest rate of poverty among major U.S. cities and the smallest middle class.

The middle-income group makes up a quarter of the population, compared to 38 percent regionally. To match the metro area, Detroit would need an increase of 27,700 African-American middle-class households. (There are currently 51,400.)

Those stats come from “Growing Detroit’s African-American Middle Class: The Opportunity for a Prosperous Detroit,” a report released Sunday by the think tank Detroit Future City. (They use the parameters of household income between $46,100 and $115,300, or 80 to 200 percent of the national median income, to define middle class.)

Here are some takeaways.

Where the middle class is strongest in Detroit: 

There are 12 neighborhoods where middle-class households are in the majority, including parts of Grandmont Rosedale, University District, Green Acres, Sherwood Forest, Palmer Woods, Boston Edison, East English Village, Regent Park, Indian Village and a portion of Downtown.

What middle class looks like to Detroiters:

DFC focus group participants described middle-class neighborhoods as clean, with well-maintained housing and access to good schools, retail and healthy food. They said being middle class implied “a sense of comfort and security,” with the financial stability to acquire needs and some of their wants. But the sense of security is tenuous — “they felt that their economic security was fragile and feared that they could easily lose their middle-class status.”

Though the report explores why Detroit needs to help residents move up the ladder, it doesn’t do much to address the sense of fragility that still prevails once families are technically middle class. Attaining that status is not permanent, and black children of middle-class families are much more likely than their white counterparts to end up with lower incomes than their parents.

The impact of white families on Detroit’s middle class isn’t exactly what you’d expect, and it’s changing rapidly:

All but one of those middle class neighborhoods listed above is majority black, according to the report, but that’s changing: “Though the number of African-American-headed households in middle-class neighborhoods is increasing, white households are the main driver of household growth in these neighborhoods. They make up about two-thirds of the growth in middle-class neighborhoods.”

People also told DFC that they didn’t think they made enough to afford “a place in the newly developing areas of Detroit” and that they felt white and wealthy residents were disproportionately  benefiting from revitalization efforts.

In contrast to those sentiments, the portion of white households that are middle class is only about two percent higher than the portion for black households — in the region as a whole, there’s a greater disparity, with an 11-point spread.

There may be a difference between income levels for longtime white Detroiters and newcomers; it would be interesting to see that comparison.

There are major hurdles to a thriving middle class: 

Though the report doesn’t go into detail about particular policy recommendations, the authors include broad challenges that need to be addressed.

  • Cost of living: Exorbitant car insurance rates, high tax rates, housing costs and utility bills contribute to expensive city living.
  • Schools: High quality schools keep families in the city, while poor quality schools — or lack of nearby neighborhood schools, or facility issues — are one of the drivers that has made families choose to leave the city.  
  • Blight and vacancy: Abandoned properties dotting many blocks of the city are a hindrance to the middle class neighborhoods residents envision.
  • Homeownership: The report highlights residents’ perceptions that the decline in homeownership and increase in renters has made for less stable neighborhoods. It’s next to impossible to get a mortgage in Detroit, keeping homeownership out of reach for many families.
  • Jobs and economy: The unemployment rate in Detroit is twice as high for African-Americans as whites, and the number of Detroiters who commute out of the city for work is increasing. Really surprising: â€œemployed Detroiters [are] earning less than their regional and national counterparts with similar educational attainment.”

Looking at Detroit’s middle class means grappling with the suburbs, too:

One of the glaring omissions in the DFC report was any reference to segregation, historic and present, that affects Detroiters and has created many of the conditions that make it harder for black residents to move up the ladder. And where you grew up plays a huge part in your economic success later in life

But the report does make a strong point that we haven’t heard said so explicitly by stakeholders or officials. 

We don’t just need to attract more people “back” to the city, Brookings Institution fellow Andre M. Perry writes. Instead, we need to prioritize “building from within.”

We “don’t want to return to the realities where the devaluing of low-income and black people hastened the flight to the suburbs,” Perry argues in the report. â€œThe concentration of black people who stayed in the city is an asset that’s worthy of investment.”

He puts a finer point on it: “Growing the black middle class in Detroit should not result from pushing low-income people out of the city.” 

It’s a mandate that will hopefully stay front and center as the city pursues neighborhood development. –Kate Abbey-Lambertz

Ashley Woods Branch is the founder and CEO of Detour Media, a local journalism startup that builds community, spotlights neighborhood issues and curates Detroit news through an equitable perspective. Ashley leads Detour’s audience growth strategies, community partnerships, revenue operations and strategic planning. She’s also a sought-after consultant for digital newsrooms and has worked with more than 100 news outlets across America. Ashley previously led consumer experience and digital strategy at the Detroit Free Press and was the editor of HuffPost’s Detroit bureau, as well as a reporter and editor focused on Detroit culture and development for MLive, Real Detroit Weekly and Model D. She was a 2019 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @ash_detroit