I knew the recession had hit Michigan, my home state, harder than it's hit any other place in the country; I knew this because I've been following the news and because my family lives in Metropolitan Detroit. But my recent trip to Michigan reminded me of just how bad things have gotten.
This is not the Michigan I remember. It's not just that some stores are boarded up and some houses are sitting empty; entire clusters of stores point their vacant windows toward passing traffic. (The cars are heavily American; the bumper stickers declare support for this or that union; there is pride, after all, for what little it's worth these days.) Priced to sell! the For Sale signs declare. Will build to suit. It's not one or two houses that have been emptied out; it's neighborhoods that have begun to empty, the streets peppered with brown-lawned lots and swinging realtors' signs.
Recession in Detroit doesn't only look like this:
It also looks like this:
And like this, as captured by a Michigan resident running a blog called Sub-Urban Decay:
The word "decimated" literally means "reduced by ten percent." Decimated, therefore, doesn't begin to capture the blight tearing through metro Detroit.
Because it's not just the economy that's imploding. Detroit Public Schools is on record as the lowest performing urban school district in the country. The graduation rate across DPS hovers at 58%, and the district's Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, recently announced planned closures of 45 schools in the district, for a total of 140 closed schools in the last five years. That's over half the district. And by the way, Bobb was brought in because state law requires it when a district fails to meet basic fiscal responsibility guidelines.
Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, you may be aware, resigned his post in 2007 upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He was also, among other things, the target of a scandal involving Tamara Greene, a stripper who performed at the mayoral residence and was later shot and killed in an as-yet unsolved case and a civil lawsuit in which Kilpatrick was accused of retaliating against the police officers in charge of the murder investigation. Because this is Detroit, leaving the Manoogian Mansion in disgrace is not the end of your story: Recently, new details have emerged about an FBI corruption investigation involving both Kilpatrick and his father.
Detroit isn't the only city in Michigan, but in many ways it's the most important one. As it goes, so goes the state. And it's going to hell these days even faster than ever.
You want, as you watch the empty buildings flash past, as you hear the stories of families getting their water shut off and people talking about both the need and the utter impossibility of securing a second job in this floundering economy, as you watch the kids boarding their schoolbus in the morning, their parents slowly spreading off toward their cars, their bikes, their houses, you want to identify the simple cause of decay and you want to locate the simple solution. There are some things we know now that we didn't know before: It's not necessarily good to treat home ownership as a god-given, universal right. Lending practices should be more rigorous, and banks must be held to vastly higher standards than they have historically been. Credit card companies are largely evil, with a tiny dollop of forced generosity tossed in by the federal government.
But let's say we take care of all that, and still we watch as 3 out of every 5 kids drop out of high school, and still we watch as people who are doing everything they're told to do--working a full time job, paying their bills on time, making a budget and sticking to it--still find themselves realizing they'll never have enough money to retire, still find themselves making tough decisions like whether to set that extra 50 dollars aside at the end of the month for their child's college fund or to use it to pay the credit card bill.
Let's say we change the worst laws: We get some honest to goodness health care reform (hooray!), we hold the auto industry's feet to the fire, we boot the Kwame Kilpatricks. But the problems is that these are patches pasted hastily across a blown-out tire. Politics, local or national, is about as corrupt in this country as can be, and the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down campaign finance laws will only make matters worse. Our economy relies on a few staple industries, puts all its economic eggs in one or two baskets, and then when the bottom of the basket falls out we're all surprised when we have nothing to eat for breakfast. And you don't have to be half paying attention to the health care debate to see how much this country hates poor people and minorities, especially its black and Latino population.
It's shameful, and it leaves me feeling deflated and defeated. What use is there fighting against such powerful bigotry and self-protectionism? How can we turn a current so powerful it sweeps us all downstream?
Yet we do keep trying, I suppose. We take hope in the victories, even the small ones and especially the large ones like yesterday's historic vote mandating health care for all. It's a far from perfect bill, diluted down by special interests and the bigotry of conservative politicians, but as my friend Rafi says, I guess we need to take care not to let great be the enemy of good.
And, I would add, we need to take care not to mistake "good" for "good enough."