Thomas Sugrue: How Bankruptcy Will Hurt Detroit's Middle Class

July 22, 2013, 11:46 PM

Thomas Sugrue, writing in the New Yorker, tells the story of his childhood neighbors in northwest Detroit as an example of how the black middle class in Detroit rose and fell, and how a large segment of Detroit's population is endangered by the cutbacks in city government spurred by the city's fiscal crisis. 

Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of "The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,"  a 1996 book that is frequently cited as the seminal explanation for the city's long-lasting crisis.

In the New Yorker, Sugrue writes how Ron and Loretta Martin and their three sons were one of the first black families on his block in 1973. He was a policeman; she was a teacher, and "both were at the vanguard of a new generation of black Americans who vaulted into the middle class through public employment."

"Today, government employment, however fragile, is the mainstay of Detroit’s economy. At the beginning of 2013, the public sector directly provided more than forty thousand jobs in the city. Among Detroit’s top five employers are the city itself, the Detroit public schools, and the federal government. By contrast, the last two automakers with substantial operations in the city, Chrysler and General Motors, employ only about four thousand workers each."

By the time the Martins moved in, blue collar jobs were disappearing, Sugrue writes. Yet the children of auto workers began to benefit from the hard-won gains of the civil-rights movement; as the assembly lines halted, more and more blacks found new opportunities, like the Martins, as teachers and cops, or as social workers and firefighters, clerks and accountants, city attorneys and court reporters. 

Today, though, bankruptcy poses just as pressing a crisis as the collapse of the auto industry. "The city will likely have no choice—short of the near-impossible prospect of a federal bailout—but to cut spending drastically, lay off workers, and axe pension and health benefits. But the cuts will exact a high price. The Detroit that emerges from bankruptcy will have a lot fewer Ron and Loretta Martins, and a lot less hope."


Read more:  The New Yorker

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