Middle Class Attention at the Expense of Detroit’s Poor

Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and an attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s non-partisan and independent anti-poverty think tank. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.  She advised judges on legal sufficiency and analysis of social security regulations as well as applied specific federal circuit precedent to cases. She brings a strong commitment to social justice, equity and democracy and the need to give voice to the plight of those who feel economically marginalized by society. In this column, she brings attention to the inconsistencies of the new Detroit Future City report on middle class growth and why Detroit should be focused on poverty now. For submission inquiries contact the Institute’s editor-in-chief Bankole Thompson at info@thepulseinstitute.org

By Tina M. Patterson

In a recent report titled, “Growing Detroit’s African-American Middle Class: The Opportunity for a Prosperous Detroit,” the resurrection of the black middle class in Detroit is highlighted as key to stabilizing Detroit’s future.

According to this new report by the group Detroit Future City, “As Detroit moves forward, it will be critical to grow the middle class,” which it defines as one having an income between 80% and 200% of the national median household income (between $46,100 and $115,300 per year).

In particular, the report notes that one group within the city that will be important for achieving this goal is the 18% of households just below middle-class status, which have incomes between 50% and 80% of national median income (between $28,800 and $46,100). 

Significantly the report specifies that “a strong focus on income growth for this group would help ensure that current residents are able to fully participate and benefit in the city’s recovery, and that Detroit grows a strong base of middle-class households that can anchor broader population and income growth in the city.”  

No one will refute the importance of a strong middle class within a city or the historical significance of the black middle class. The stability, security, and economic base of the middle class is essential. Yet, the glaring oversight throughout the report is the lack of focus on the significant majority of Detroit, which is comprised of low income households. In fact, the median income of the city of Detroit is only $27,838, which means the entire focus of the report leaves half of the population of Detroit out of its search for growth.

This is especially perplexing considering the report conspicuously noted that the Detroit middle class accounts for only 25% of households, and that Detroit has the largest share of low-income households, with slightly more than half its total households, making less than half of the national median income.

Furthermore, despite its focus on growing the middle class, the report concludes with the admission that “equitable and inclusive growth in Detroit will require that lower-income Detroit households have access to opportunities that would allow them to achieve a level of economic comfort and security normally associated with the middle class.” 

Poverty Consistently Overlooked

In this era of Detroit’s post-bankruptcy recovery, poverty has consistently and statistically proven to be the biggest issue hampering the true economic growth of the city.

Despite the lack of attention or acknowledgment given to this issue by city officials, major employers and market forces have pointed to the low quality of life and economic disparities in Detroit as a problem. Because of Detroit’s failure to focus serious and concentrated efforts on addressing this major issue, the city has lost serious opportunities for major economic growth and development.

In one example, the Army, in 2018, declined to locate its Headquarters for the Army Futures Command to Detroit due to its low livability scale, which measured and ranked categories such as affordable housing, quality neighborhoods, and safe and convenient transportation. In fact, Detroit finished near the bottom, with Senator Gary Peters, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, commenting that “Detroit ranked so low on the livability scale that it blew us out of contention.”

Additionally, major ratings agency Moody’s, released a report late last year noting that while “Detroit’s downtown growth drives its economy, it’s not enough to stem population loss or alter the city’s weak demographic profile.” Specifically, Moody’s pinpointed the educational crisis, noting that “The Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD) could also become a major drag on revitalization beyond downtown.”

Finally, in a recent meeting of the Detroit Economic Club to address poverty, Allan Mallach, noted author of “The Divided City”, began his initial remarks by insisting that the city must focus systematically on lifting people out of poverty, and opined that there is little, if any, risk on focusing on poverty and inequality, which will only strengthen the revival.

Specifically, Mallach during the poverty forum which was moderated by Bankole Thompson, editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute and opinion columnist at The Detroit News, mentioned two main objectives for alleviating poverty in the city of Detroit. First, the need for decent jobs, of which the vast majority are not held by those living in the city and coming out of poverty, and second, educational opportunities for low income kids in Detroit.

These are just three examples of credible, external sources that have recognized the reality of Detroit’s economic stagnation when it comes to improving quality of life and addressing the needs of the poor.

Yet, despite these and numerous other reports documenting the economic disparities in the city, city officials continue to deny its existence and insist on ignoring the issue of poverty.

Mayor Mike Duggan failed to mention poverty and denied the two Detroits narrative in a speech about neighborhoods before the Detroit Economic Club.

Maurice Cox likewise denied the existence of two Detroits at the meeting of the Detroit Economic Club with Allan Mallach. Cox, Director of Planning and Development for the City of Detroit, insisted economic trends are in the city’s favor, noting poverty is down from 40 percent to 35 percent, but failed to admit it is still the highest of any big city in the nation. 

Now, ahead of the release of the Future City Report, Arthur Jemison, Mayor Duggan’s chief of services and infrastructure, is quoted touting the report in an article from the Detroit Free Press, which failed to mention that he is on the Board of Directors of Detroit Future City, the entity that released the study. While this may not breach any ethical violations, it does beg the question of whether any critical analysis of city policy is possible with a member of the administration at the helm. Critical analysis may not be popular, but is necessary to identify and strengthen weaknesses. After all, nothing is foolproof or failure-proof, but we must be honest and transparent to identify flaws and get the best out of our work.

This is where Detroit has consistently fallen short. It has repeatedly declined attention to the biggest problem it faces today: poverty. Detroit must focus on the needs of low income households, which is most of the city, and also primarily African American. It must finally acknowledge their place in this economic recovery, which has been continually overlooked, clearly indicated by the focus of the Future City report itself.

Real Solutions for a Real Problem

If Detroit is serious about its future, it must begin with an acknowledgement of the issue that can no longer be denied- poverty, and second, it must seek and implement genuine, long term, sustainable solutions to uplift the thousands in poverty being overlooked through current policies.

Some ideas to consider, while new for the city, are not altogether radical or innovative, as other cities around the United States have taken creative approaches to addressing the needs of impoverished populations in their communities.

One example is the universal basic income, which is currently being piloted by Mayor Michael Tubbs in Stockton, California. Another approach is to raise minimum wage in the city of Detroit, which has been done in other cities across the country including San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Oakland, and San Jose. In fact, a report released by the University of California—Berkeley’s Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics (CWED) showed that those policies have raised the earnings of low-wage workers without causing disruption in the labor market.

Understandably, there may be issues of conflicting city and state laws to consider. But, with Mayor Mike Duggan leading a crusade to lower car insurance, a state law issue, calling the auto insurance system “morally indefensible,” there is little reason he cannot take up the same cause against fighting poverty in the city he is tasked to serve, Detroit.

The city must seriously consider policy proposals and solutions dedicated to uplifting residents out of poverty, rather than rely on conclusive summaries of what needs to be done. Furthermore, these efforts must be done with honesty and transparency with the main goal of reducing the cycle of poverty in the city, rather than introducing short term programmatic solutions.

Nelson Mandela said it best, that “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

The political urgency and political will in Detroit must demand no less in addressing the essentials for its residents most in need. 


  1. Another great article!!! You know seriously I have not found an article that was not clear and concise. I learn a lot from the Pulse Institute!
    Thank you.

  2. Tina:

    Thanks for you insightful commentary regarding the current state of affairs in the city of Detroit. Your analysis is spot on about the need to address the underlying social and economic issues facing the the policy decisions city administrators confront as they attempt to move the city forward.

    There can be no forward movement if we don’t embrace the need to tackle the underlying root of economic inequality and social justice issues in Detroit. Reform of our criminal justice system, eliminating the economic disparities of the cost of living in the city vs. the suburbs, the need for creative and uniform delivery of educational services so that we have a common core of values to reference in evaluating our progress in educating our children , are all important. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided by issues of class, or race for the reality is that a middle class person in Palmer Woods is no different from a low income person on the far eastside. Their lives are inextricably tied together by their love of the city and the need to live a productive life south fo 8 Mile Road.

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