Why Detroit must act against poverty

Editor’s Note: This column by Detroit City Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López explains her own family’s struggle with poverty as well as the role of the Council in dealing with the issue of pervasive inequality in the city. For submission inquiries email info@thepulseinstitute.org

By Raquel Castañeda-López

“Detroit wears its poverty.” Never have I heard the city’s complex struggle with poverty explained more succinctly. Century old homes in desperate need of repair symbolize years of disinvestment and economic inequality in Detroit. When families are struggling to keep the water on or focused on saving their homes from foreclosure, the thought of investing in home repairs seems luxurious and unattainable.

But poverty affects more than just houses. In Detroit, poverty shows up in many ways: in the craned necks trying to catch a glimpse of the bus they’ve been waiting on for hours; in the rows of blighted houses, schools with crowded classrooms and high rates of unemployment due to criminal background checks. Poverty looks black, looks brown, looks white, looks immigrant. In Detroit, poverty is family.

My own family’s struggle with poverty reflects the city’s struggle with economic inequality and blight. My mother never owned property. She grew up in the Herman Gardens projects and didn’t have stable housing until my grandmother was given the house I grew up in via a domestic violence settlement. Ever since I can remember my house had always needed repairs, from a cracked window, to a backed up sewer, to a leaking roof or crumbling porch, something was always broken. My family’s experience is no different than many other Detroiters.

Living in poverty also means having to deal with being judged and accused of irresponsibility as if being poor were something to be blamed for.

Unfortunately, this poverty-shaming is upheld rather than condemned by programs which focus on increasing incomes and education levels, reforming the people rather than systems which have excluded them. Only once they are no longer poor do they earn access to quality schools, healthcare and safe neighborhoods. However, it is in Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods that you’ll find the greatest sense of strength, resiliency and community. That’s not something we want to fix but rather embrace.

As a society, our conversation must shift from trying to eradicate poverty to creating equal opportunities and redistributing resources equitably. In our communities it is our job not to look away, but rather to elevate the forgotten stories and ignored voices of those living in persistent poverty. Our job as local government is to move away from casting judgement and working towards meeting people’s basic needs regardless of their income.

On council, we must work to create budgets that support initiatives and fund programs that promote our value of equal economic opportunity. Developers and corporations requesting public money must deliver more than just a promise of economic inclusion and security for Detroiters.

Wealth inequality holds us all back. Detroit will only move forward when every Detroiter is valued and has the same opportunity to lead a dignified life.

Raquel Castañeda-López is a member of the Detroit City Council representing District 6. 

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