Detroit Unemployment Rate Triple The National Average

The economic recession has left Detroit with an astounding 22 percent unemployment rate, almost three times the national average. It is now one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Rochelle Riley, a columnist with the Detroit Free Press, compares the Motor City's troubles to devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to turn our conversation to Detroit. The economic crisis has hit that city particularly hard, leaving Detroit with one of the country's highest unemployment rates, at more than 22 percent. And this is - the city faces a political tug-of-war over the mayor's office. Joining us now to talk about that is Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley. Rochelle Riley, welcome back to you.

Ms. ROCHELLE RILEY (Columnist, Detroit Free Press): Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Well, given that - Pam said that part of the purpose was to reassure the country that the president and his administration are on task. How did you respond to the president's remarks? Did you feel reassured?

Ms. RILEY: Well, whether I felt reassured or not, they are people who are genuinely frightened here in the heartland and where the ground zero is now going to be for this economic crisis, particularly what's happening with the auto industry. I think that one thing that he did do is remind people that whether we're at war or whether we're dealing it with an economic crisis, he is still going to also deal with health, education and welfare - and not welfare in the general terms of giving away, but in the terms of making sure that we're safe and that somebody's trying to take care of issues like health care, which people are losing daily here, and education.

MARTIN: Did you find his comment persuasive, that these are not really spending initiatives, but necessary long-term investments? You think that's persuasive at a time when people are facing genuine crisis, day-to-day, immediate crisis?

Ms. RILEY: I think he has persuaded people that he means what he says, and that he thinks this will work. I think there are skeptics who are wondering whether it will move fast enough. I mean, when you're in crisis and you're free falling - I mean, right now, the nation is at the edge of a cliff above a second Great Depression. And who's at the front of that cliff, right on the edge? Michigan. And who's leading Michigan? It's Detroit. Not only is the unemployment rate as high as it's ever been, we've got 80,000 abandoned buildings, record foreclosures. And if the car companies go under based on three quarters of Americans not supporting a massive bailout, they probably will. We're going to have the equivalent sometime over the next 10 years of Detroit looking like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And being the largest - by far - city in Michigan, where goes Detroit, goes the state.

MARTIN: And while Detroit is dealing with the economic crisis, there's political drama. Ken Cockrel took over as mayor after a former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick left office after pleading guilty to various charges relating to a scandal back in September. Now there's a special election, as I understand it, coming up in May.

Ms. RILEY: Special election on May 5th, where former Pistons great and businessman Dave Bing is running against the former Detroit City Council President Ken Cockrel. And people are not enthused by either candidate. And both candidates…

MARTIN: They're not? They're not enthused by either candidate.

Ms. RILEY: No. There is a looming financial crisis. There have been questions about whether Ken Cockrel is the right person for the job. He's the person who, you know, got the job because he had to, but was not necessarily chosen. And folks really were hoping that Dave Bing would ride in on a white horse and save the day, and there have been great questions about the way he handles things. And this will be their first major debate coming up to sort of let them set the path for how they would save the city. And people are very, very skeptical.

MARTIN: Pam, I wanted to ask you about this. Obviously, central to Detroit's fortunes are the fate of the auto industry. And has this issue been - we haven't heard much about this lately from the White House. (unintelligible) on the front burner?

Ms. RILEY: I don't think - I think it is on the front burner, because the president is very concerned that it's so unpopular. And I do think it is something that he really felt that - I think that he sees that bailout fatigue may hurt the automotive industry. And I think that it helps the - more of the ground surge, the people that he would like to see give a rescue package to. But again, I think he's right. I think there is some bailout fatigue.

But this week, I think March 31st is the deadline for this taskforce that's supposed to come back and decide what they would recommend for General Motors and Chrysler. And would that be, for instance, bankruptcy? And they were just given - automotive suppliers in the state of Michigan were given about $5 billion from the TARP money just this week, as well. And so, this is to give them a line of credit to survive. So I think they're combating, you know, there's these issues like, we're helping the suppliers so that they can maintain to keep GM and Chrysler going. And now what if Chrysler and GM going to bankruptcy? It's a very complex issue.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask each of you - we only have about two minutes left. There can only be so many questions asked in a one-hour press conference. The president took 13 questions. One question was about homelessness, specifically children. But I did want to ask, do you get the sense that there's a will, political will to address urban issues, with Detroit, perhaps, being the most extreme example of a city in crisis? So, briefly, Pam. And then Rochelle, I'll give you the last word.

Ms. RILEY: I think that there is, but I don't think they really know how to separate that from the massive problems that they have. They just can't seem to look at it as a rule issue or an urban issue. They got caught on the farm bill, for example - farm subsidies. That's - I think that's the problem.

MARTIN: Rochelle, what about you? Do you think there's a political will to address these issues in urban areas like Detroit?

Ms. RILEY: I think there are political blinders to just how serious the problems are in urban areas. When I heard Chuck Todd ask why he wasn't asking the American people to sacrifice more, you could hear the collective gasp across Michigan, and especially in Detroit, because the sacrifices here are huge. And I think until there is actually a look at just how bad it could be, it will get there without people realizing what they could have done to save it.

MARTIN: Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley was kind enough to join us from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Pamela Gentry's a senior political analyst and blogger for BET, and she was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. I thank you both so much. Let's do it again.

Ms. RILEY: It's been a pleasure.

Ms. Gentry: Thank you.

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