How An American Mayor Runs Away from Poverty

Part 1 of a Six Part Series

Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and an attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, where she brings a strong commitment to social justice, equity and democracy. 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. This column is part of an ongoing PuLSE series about Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s reluctance to confront poverty. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-chief of the Institute.

By Tina M. Patterson

Plans for a Detroit poverty center are being mapped out as a collaboration between Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions Center. While this may sound like a step in the right direction toward addressing poverty by the City of Detroit, we must take a critical look at its credibility, authenticity and motivation. Because the timing is highly suspect about the discussions between Duggan, a mayor who has ignored poverty and an ivory tower that is using a drone approach to try to tackle issues affecting people in the neighborhoods. 

Since reelection in 2017, Mayor Mike Duggan has continually denied the narrative of “two Detroits”- one made up of the opulent and thriving business districts of midtown and downtown, and one encompassing downtrodden, underinvested, and highly impoverished neighborhoods. Mayor Duggan has been quoted as saying the two Detroits narrative is “90 percent media” and a “fiction.”

His comments at a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club earlier this year reflected these sentiments yet again. During the meeting titled “What about the neighborhoods,” the word poverty was not mentioned even one time, even though it is a persistent issue throughout many neighborhoods in the city. Furthermore, Mayor Duggan seemed to again brush off the notion of “two Detroits” by dismissing the term and stating that the people in the neighborhoods know the truth, pointing to the increased value of their property and homes and the functioning of routine city services as evidence that the city is doing well.

 Despite Mayor Duggan’s incredulous assertions readily dismissing undeniable facts about the existence of poverty in his city, the largest poverty city in America according to a 2016 Census report, significantly influential individuals have appeared before Detroit’s anti-poverty think tank, The PuLSE Institute and others wrote columns confirming that poverty does indeed plague the city in the midst of this great recovery. The list is long but not limited to the following:

    -Governor Gretchen Whitmer

   -Attorney General Dana Nessel

  -Wayne County Executive Warren Evans

 -DTE Energy president and CEO Jerry Norcia

  -Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan president and CEO Daniel Loepp

  -Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti

-Strategic Staffing Solution president and CEO Cindy Pasky

-University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel

 -Flagstar Bank president and CEO Alessandro DiNello

-Former Governor Rick Snyder

 These business leaders and top policymakers have gone on the record with The PuLSE Institute about the poverty facing the region, and provided honest perspectives and solutions about tackling the root causes of poverty to provide those most in need with a greater quality of life.

The Institute is also a national platform to drive conversations on poverty and inequality. For example, when the Democratic presidential candidates came to Detroit in July for two nights of debate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote a PuLSE column explaining the need to address poverty and what is at stake for America in the 2020 presidential election.

Furthermore, the Institute was recently featured in the Washington Post by twice-a-week syndicated columnist Esther Cepeda, who cast The PuLSE Institute as a national model for other cities to follow in her August 31st column.

In addition, earlier this year, Lawrence Technological University in Southfield announced that it was partnering with The PuLSE Institute to create an anti-poverty studies curriculum for its MBA program, where students will study the work of the Institute. In fact, our editor-in-chief, Bankole Thompson, a widely respected Detroit journalist and opinion columnist at The Detroit News gave a lecture to an MBA class at Lawrence Tech just last week.

With the abundance of individuals who have participated and associated themselves with the anti-poverty mission of The PuLSE Institute, it makes sense that one individual who has yet to appear before The PuLSE is the very person who has denied poverty has been an issue in Detroit: none other than Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

In fact, during the mayoral campaign of 2017, Mayor Duggan twice declined an invitation to a mayoral town hall on poverty, an event that drew a crowd of over 600 people and led to the founding of The PuLSE Institute. His opponent former State. Sen. Coleman Young was the lone candidate to appear for a discussion on poverty at Calvary Baptist Church.

Because the Institute is a fiercely independent entity and does not succumb to pressure from any political leader or group, it is understandable that Duggan may not view The PuLSE Institute as a subservient policy group willing to exercise an excessive degree of obedience to his political wishes and pet projects. The Institute is not a University poverty center program willing to serve at the mayor’s behest and prop his initiatives without critical examination of the underlying issues facing poor people in Detroit.

Given Mayor Duggan’s own dismissive dialogue toward the existence of poverty in Detroit, his refusal to address it publicly during his reelection campaign, and his selectivity in addressing issues that reflect his administration in the most favorable light, how can his influence and intentions be trusted for a center on poverty in the city? 

 Why, all of a sudden, does he see the need for a poverty center after steadily downplaying the issue for years?

Could this be an attempt to launch a political appeasement project and exploit an existing university’s poverty center to placate Detroiters and make their demands for serious anti-poverty policies go away? 

Beyond words alone, the mayor’s leadership and actions have made it very clear that poverty is not an issue he will champion or use his bully pulpit to push for reform as the mayor of the most populous and poorest city in the state. His record has reflected that throughout his years in office on some of the most basic and necessary quality of life issues such as housing, water, and wages.

No property tax exemption for poor leads to lawsuit by ACLU

Under the leadership of Mayor Duggan, rather than publicly inform residents about a property tax exemption available to low income residents, the city of Detroit did not advocate for individuals to take advantage of this program nor did it make the program accessible for those who qualified. Instead, thousands of poor Detroiters who could have received the exemption from paying property taxes instead lost their homes in foreclosure because the city created a hardship in obtaining relief rather than providing information for available relief. In fact, the city was sued by the ACLU for making state-mandated property tax breaks inaccessible for the poor, causing unnecessary foreclosures, and forced to settle the issue. Additionally, the city over-assessed homes for years at an average of 65% above value, leading to thousands of foreclosures and temporary oversight by the Michigan Tax Commission.

Water shutoffs against poor drew ire of United Nations

During numerous mayoral community meetings, countless residents have demanded that Mayor Duggan declare water a human right, in light of the thousands of water shutoffs facing poor residents. Not once did Mayor Duggan make such a humane statement. In fact, the Detroit water shutoffs received international attention from the United Nations during Duggan’s first term in 2014, months after a historic and controversial municipal bankruptcy. Water and Sewerage Director Gary Brown, a Duggan appointee, noted that 44,000 people had their water shut off at that time, and admitted that, “The United Nations was here, people were picketing, and rightly so, saying this was inhumane and unfair.” Brown also admitted that poverty was a problem preventing people from paying their water bills.

No support for increasing minimum wage

Nationwide, the fight to raise the minimum wage has caught fire and cities such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Oakland, and San Jose have instituted policy to increase the minimum wage. 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.

However, rather than passionately supporting efforts to increase the minimum wage in Detroit, Mayor Duggan chose to defer the issue to state law. When asked if his office would support a $15 minimum wage for city workers, Detroit corporation counsel Lawrence Garcia stated, “the State of Michigan has set a minimum wage for workers in Michigan through MCL 408.414. This law prevents the City from creating an ordinance on minimum wage.”

Car insurance reform, a personal pet project

Although Mayor Duggan used the superiority of state law as reason not to champion issues of water affordability and increasing minimum wage, he had no problem openly defying state law when it came to the issue of car insurance. Likewise an issue codified by state law, car insurance had been Mayor Duggan’s #1 agenda item since his initial election in 2013. After failed attempts at reform through his D-Insurance initiative, which proposed to eliminate popular protections and failed to address discriminatory issues in car insurance such as credit scores and zip codes, Mayor Duggan took the fight to Lansing himself. In fact, he sued the State legislature arguing that state insurance laws were unconstitutional and threatened political revenge by vowing to campaign against Detroit state legislators who voted against his previous insurance plan.

While a conflict between city and state laws is an issue to consider, with Mayor Mike Duggan leading a crusade to lower car insurance, 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 fact that car insurance was a state law issue did not stop Mayor Duggan from using his bully pulpit as mayor of the largest city in Michigan, and the city among the highest insurance rates in the nation, to fight for reform by state government.

This notable crusade proves that if Duggan could fight for insurance reform, he could just as easily champion raising the minimum wage and instituting a realistic water affordability plan. Just as the mayor fought tooth and nail for car insurance reform, he could have fought just as hard to implement policy changes that will uplift those in poverty. The fact that he failed to do so and deflected to state law as a convenient excuse not to get involved, along with his continuous dismissal of poverty as an issue hampering the growth of Detroit, is a clear indication that poverty is simply not an item on his agenda and the possible creation of a poverty center must be scrutinized in this context. 

After all, why is there a need for a poverty center when as the top executive in Detroit, all Mayor Duggan has to do is simply implement policies that will uplift those in poverty? With his many actions and earlier statements dismissing and denying the issue throughout his tenure as mayor, this latest initiative, if it proceeds as planned, simply lacks credibility and cannot be trusted. It must be viewed as an attempt by a mayor desperate to play to the public gallery and quell any criticism of his unwillingness to boldly acknowledge that poverty exists.

PuLSE as the Voice of Poverty in Detroit

Being from Detroit, I have never seen a mayor so arrogant and indifferent to the fact that poverty exists in his city.

I remember vividly the summer of 2015, when working downtown as an attorney for the federal government, I would walk around Campus Martius during lunch hour and see so many faces and events that I would never see when driving through the neighborhoods of the city. Even then, it was evident that Detroit was on a sliding scale into economic opulence for downtown and economic desolation for the neighborhoods. Even more so, with the influx and pace of development, it was given that those living in poverty would remain there with no foreseeable plans for relief.

As a young lawyer with opportunity abound, I could have ignored the warning signs I saw and left the city for greater prospects, but I chose to stay to help my city address its rampant poverty, and that is why I am honored to lead The PuLSE Institute, whose credibility and the people behind it cannot be matched. 

Dr. Bernard Lafayette: National Coordinator, 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, top assistant to Martin Luther King Jr., and one of the original Freedom Riders. Dr. Arun Gandhi: grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, board member of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in South Africa, founder and former director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence and the founding president of the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute. Herb Boyd: Journalist & Historian, best-selling author of books on Malcolm X, James Baldwin and the black experience. Sister Simone Campbell, SSS: Executive Director of NETWORK, one of the nation’s leading Catholic voices for social justice and champion of Pope Francis’ message of equality.

These are just a few of the individuals who occupy our National Advisory Panel, all luminaries in their fields and internationally known for their crusade against poverty and for being champions for global justice on some of the leading social causes for equity in history.

Duggan, his team or the individuals who might avail themselves to create a “poverty center” will never be able to match the decades of work that Lafayette, Gandhi, Boyd, Campbell and other members of The PuLSE Institute have invested in the fight against poverty. 

Not many black women (if any) lead think tanks that have the stature of The PuLSE Institute in our nation and that is why as a Detroit bred black woman who graduated from Martin Luther King High School and studied law at the University of Detroit, I am honored to lead this historic Institute, as well as the unprecedented effort to correct all that is wrong with this false recovery. 

That is why you should greet the so-called plans for a poverty center as a cosmetic response to the demands to address poverty and not as a serious initiative to get to the bottom of the structural inequalities that give rise to poverty. Detroiters are smart enough not to allow dust to be thrown into their eyes. We’ve seen high profile press conferences in this city led by the mayor with civic and corporate leaders and handpicked activists where big initiatives are rolled out that have done little or nothing to uplift the lives of Detroiters. 

As expected, such press conferences and announcements are done to simply garner and command headlines and play on the sensibilities of unsuspecting poor people, and a media that is willing to regurgitate whatever Mayor Duggan says without checking his extensive record of denying poverty and fails to analyze whether his next “big thing” is designed to solve the compounding problems the city faces or not. 

This is why you can count on my voice and that of The PuLSE Institute as an independent, authoritative, authentic, and dedicated group to decipher truth from fiction as we further our mission to tackle and solve the problem that is in our city and region.

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