Detroit Poverty Getting Worse

According to the Census Bureau, Detroit is the most impoverished major city in the nation. And conditions are getting worse. Quinn Klinefelter of Detroit Public Radio reports.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

It's been six weeks since Hurricane Katrina struck. Advocates for the poor worry that public sympathy is running out giving way to business as usual. New Orleans, they point out, was hardly the epicenter of poverty. An even more extreme case is Detroit, the poorest city in the nation according to the Census Bureau. And it's poverty is getting worse as Detroit Public Radio's Quinn Klinefelter explains.

QUINN KLINEFELTER reporting:

On a downtown Detroit street, former autoworker T.C. Laithum(ph) walks a familiar route. He wears a faded baseball cap, a scraggly beard and a look of resignation. Laithum is one of dozens in Detroit who spend their day trolling the streets begging for spare change.

Mr. T.C. LAITHUM (Former Autoworker): You've got a lot of blight and, you know, just people out of work, period, including myself. I got laid off three years ago and pretty much lost everything.

KLINEFELTER: Laithum is homeless and one of tens of thousands of autoworkers let go in recent years as Detroit's struggling Big Three automakers downsized. Laithum says he's sent out roughly 100 applications, but with no permanent address to list, he says there's been little interest from any perspective employers.

Mr. LAITHUM: I'm thinking maybe something along the line of what they did during the Depression, when they made the Public Works program where the government put people to work. And, you know, we got a lot--our infrastructures in our large cities are getting old and perhaps we could put a lot of out-of-work people to work.

KLINEFELTER: But Census Bureau statistics suggest Detroit may be fighting a losing battle against poverty. It's estimated that fully one-third of Detroiters live at or below the poverty line, the highest rate of any city with a population of at least 250,000. A myriad of factors have contributed to Detroit's deterioration--the lack of public transportation, racial animists and an influx of drugs. When Detroit automakers relocated jobs to wealthier and mostly white suburban areas, the city's majority African-American population was hard-pressed to follow. With little public transit service available, the gulf between city workers and suburban jobs only widens. Robin Boyle, an urban planner at Wayne State University, has studied the situation for years. Boyle says Detroit is in many ways a larger version of New Orleans where the haves and have-nots rarely meet.

Mr. ROBIN BOYLE (Wayne State University): It took a hurricane and a flood to demonstrate just how separate we are in terms of the economy between those who have access to good paying, largely suburban jobs and those who are isolated from that. And these are increasingly people living in these older dislocated central cities.

KLINEFELTER: It was a different story in the 1950s when the Big Three automakers were kings and the city's population approached two million. Half a century later, more than half of Detroit's population is gone, victims of downturns in the auto industry and a racial divide that continues to this day.

Unidentified Man: The taxes owed are $641.51. The department's recommendation is for demolition.

KLINEFELTER: So many homes were left abandoned that the city council now spends each Monday slating hundreds of buildings for demolition.

Unidentified Woman: Ms. Quinn(ph), do you own the building?

Ms. ZAWANDA QUINN(ph) (Detroit Resident): Yes, I do. Actually when all this started happening, I was out of work at the time.

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

Ms. QUINN: Just out of curiosity, what does a demolition cost?

KLINEFELTER: Detroiter Zawanda Quinn has lived for decades on the corner of a street in the city's impoverished Brightmore area. She says she's tried to take care of her home, even as most of her neighbors moved away. And those who prey on the less fortunate filled the void.

Ms. QUINN: Drugs came into the neighborhood, not that they weren't ever there, but in mass quantities, and by me living off of a corner, I seen more of it. I pulled up one day in my driveway, and there was an 18-year-old shot an eight-year-old in an argument at an ice cream truck.

KLINEFELTER: In spite of crime, lack of transportation and joblessness, politicians here speak hopefully about turning things around. Both Michigan's governor and Detroit's mayor believe one answer is to entice computer-related firms to relocate to the city. Yet Detroit politicians are vowing to turn the economy around regardless of statistics that suggest it may be difficult at best. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

CHIDEYA: That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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