Poverty is growing and incomes are down in pockets of suburban Metro Detroit, according to U.S. Census data released Thursday, but in most of the area’s small cities those numbers have remained stagnant.
Nearly a quarter of Metro Detroit’s smaller communities saw median household income decline and 20 percent saw the poverty rate grow, according to an analysis of census data by The Detroit News. The remaining communities saw no gains or losses and only a handful saw improvements, when comparing two five-year periods, 2006-10 and 2011-15.
Experts say the recent gains in incomes and declines in poverty at the state level are likely not yet reflected in the data for smaller communities, since the U.S. Census releases numbers only in five-year averages. The state’s median household income in 2015 was $51,084, a 2.4 percent boost from the previous year.
“This just points out the communities that have suffered more,” said Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit. “We know there has just been a turnaround in the last two years.
“No community was immune from the recession. Some have been able to come back faster than others. Some, five years later are still suffering the consequences.”
Wayne County communities were some of the hardest hit, including Melvindale, which saw its percentage of people in poverty rise to 27.1 percent, a jump of 12 percentage points. Poverty rates rose by 9 percentage points in Wayne, to 22.8 percent; Eastpointe, to 22.1 percent, and Dearborn Heights, to 20.1 percent.
Madison Heights Mayor Brian Hartwell said a downturn in residents’ income comes as “no surprise” for his as well as other, inner-ring, aging suburbs.
“I recently knocked on about 3,000 doors and the most frequently heard concern from residents was ‘we’re struggling,’ ” he said.
Madison Heights saw poverty grow from 12.8 percent in 2006-10 to 19.3 percent in the 2011-15 estimates, up 6.9 percentage points. Income dropped from $49,057 to $41,206 in the same time frames.
“Not just seniors on a fixed income but we’re a blue-collar town and a lot of manufacturing jobs have been lost,” Hartwell said. “A lot of people are stuck. They can’t get funded to start a business. And they can’t get jobs or qualify for a loan to buy a house so more money is stuck in rent.
“It does weigh on our minds. We consider ourselves an affordable city, with lower taxes.”
Hartwell said Madison Heights has become a destination for newly arrived first-generation immigrants — “Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese” and others who “fled for their lives from their old country” and are now “struggling in a new home” with a different dominant culture and a new language.
In 2015, the Census lists the poverty level at an individual annual income of less than $12,082.
Richmond in northern Macomb County saw its poverty rate jump nearly 18 percentage points to 22.1 percent at the same time its average income dropped $12,288 to $45,096.
John Moore, Richmond city manager, said changing demographics and an influx of lower-income residents might explain the numbers.
“We’re a bedroom community, and like a lot of communities, we were hit with the economic recession,” he said. “But, we didn’t have any plant closures here and have even enjoyed some growth. A (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) estimate in July put us with about 6,070 residents,” which is up from the Census estimate of 5,735.
The census estimates released Thursday are the most detailed glimpse of economic and social changes in Metro Detroit’s smaller communities of less than 65,000 residents since the American Community Survey was launched in 2005. For these areas, the data is released in five-year averages because the census collects data through a survey and margins of errors typically are larger. More current one-year estimates for larger cities were released in September.
Experts caution that because the estimates released Thursday are five-year averages, the numbers don’t necessarily reflect the economic state of the region’s communities today.
One bright spot in the Census numbers in Metro Detroit is Brighton in Livingston County.
City manager Nate Geinzer said the community of 7,555 residents is enjoying better than average times than some of its neighbors. In fact, it’s one of the highest in the area, according to the data.
The census reflects personal income increased $10,746 in the most recent five-year period to $60,910, compared with an average of $50,164 in the previous five-year period.
“I don’t see any magic pill, but I think what we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg and it’s going to get better,” Geinzer said. “You can’t beat our location — right at (freeways) 96 and 23. That translates as people wanting to live, work and invest here. Some of them were people who were either crowded out or priced out of markets in Ann Arbor and larger communities. Some were hesitant to make investment.”
Geinzer said everwhere he goes now in Brighton he sees positive signs: a vibrant downtown business district with good restaurants; a coming 300,000-square-foot health care center for University of Michigan that will handle 1,200 patients visits a day; and the expansion of a major auto supplier firm. The community boasts a good school system, he said, and a “strongly-driven” housing market.
“We are attracting highly-skilled well-paid professionals and their families,” he said. “They might not all be working here, but they like living here.”