A new approach to helping Detroit’s working poor

UM’s principal archivist on mapping out better strategies for the poor 

By Mike Smith

When I was first asked by editor-in-chief Bankole Thompson to write a piece on the working poor in Detroit, my first thought was – where do I begin?

Well, first, what does working poor mean?

With some minor variations in definition, the term “working poor” generally refers to people who have jobs, who work, but whose income are still below or hovering around the poverty line as determined by the Federal Government.

The causes of the phenomenon are complex, and therefore, have been debated since the term came into use during the time in America that historians call the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s). There were those such as Jane Addams who observed inequality as the primary problem. W.E.B. Du Bois saw racism as the key factor. Others believe the working poor had no one to blame but themselves for their position in society; they either lacked ambition or a real desire to work.

In today’s world, there is a growing education gap that may determine one’s path toward being a member of the working poor, or a member of the middle class.  Indeed, in my opinion, and in the opinion of most Americans, education is the great equalizer.

But it is not the complete answer to the problems of Detroit’s working poor. Where do we start?  I will offer two points, which I think would lead to more immediate solutions to begin to solve the problems of the working poor, rather than add to the debate on causes.

One, if only enough citizens of Michigan would recognize that the vast majority of working poor people are not lazy or unambitious.  After all, many of them hold two or more part-time jobs, and still struggle to feed themselves.  That’s why they are called “working poor.”

Moreover, if these folks are resigned to their current station in life then why did thousands of people apply for jobs when Lift N Gate opened a plant in Detroit?  And, isn’t this what many on the right side of politics desire?  More workers in the economy and less governmental support?

Which leads to my second and more salient point – if we can have some empathy for Detroit’s working poor, along with some collective sense from those of us who are doing well economically, that we can all benefit from the improvement of the lot of the working poor, then why not pitch-in and help with one big assist – a decent regional transit system. This would almost immediately boost employment in the suburbs as well as in the city proper.

I’ve always remembered the conundrum my wife had as a recruiter in the suburbs for a Fortune 500 company 20 years ago.  The company needed new hires and was eager to enrich and diversify its workforce.  In short, she was recruiting for well-paid jobs with good benefits, career-making jobs.  Yes, a high school degree was necessary (the education issue raises its head again).

But the chief problem was that an employee had to get to the northern suburbs to work and there was no direct, or even semi-direct, public transportation.

Now, if the new employee proved himself or herself, they would easily make a middleclass living and could afford a car.  So, only a few Detroiters, especially, women who needed day care for their children, could weather several months of grueling travel to get to work, to establish their credit, to get a car, and, then, shorten their commute to work from hours to minutes.

 Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But, first we have to get a lot of people in Oakland and Macomb counties to buy into the idea that helping the working poor is a good thing for all of us in Michigan.

Mike Smith, a noted historian is a Senior Fellow at The PuLSE Institute where he focuses on labor and economics 

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