We, the elected officials of the city of Detroit, can no longer talk about the creation of a world class city, when the current reality is that approximately 40 percent of our residents live at or below the poverty line. Detroit’s latest chapter must not only be a story of renaissance and revival for some, but a story of opportunity for all.
No city can truly “come back” leaving so many behind.
To that end, there is much work to be done. When compared to the poverty rates of other large U.S. cities, including Philadelphia at 26 percent, Charlotte, N.C., at 17 percent and Washington, D.C., at 18 percent, our 40 percent rate seems particularly daunting. You can’t expect our city to move forward if nearly half of its residents can’t afford life’s basic needs, let alone pay for a reliable automobile and insurance. One thing is clear, traditional tactics for problem solving won’t get us there.
If Detroit is to become a city of opportunity for all, it must adopt a coordinated commitment to eradicate poverty — one with measurable outcomes, realistic wins and a rubric that is woven into the fabric of everything we do legislatively. Unfortunately, we will, most likely, never eliminate poverty from our city borders, but reducing the number of people who live in poverty to 20 percent is an achievable goal in a 20-year period. The Census Bureau’s 40 percent number equates to about 280,000 people living in poverty. This means that a 20 percent poverty rate will get us down to approximately 140,000 people living below poverty by the year 2038. While that is still a staggering level of poverty, and no amount of poverty is acceptable, it creates a manageable starting point for a city of our size, yet it also means that we would be lifting approximately 7,000 people out from poverty annually.
The goal of cutting our poverty rate in half by 2038 can be achieved if Detroit’s elected officials adopt a collective impact framework, instead of focusing on single solutions. In the past, committed council members have separately worked on job training, air quality, homelessness, returning citizens, community benefits and disability issues. Philanthropic and civic organizations have also worked to help tackle these issues.
Increasingly, research on sustainable social change models is proving that these disparate efforts can only have a muted impact, due to the size and multifaceted landscape of poverty. “The complex nature of most social problems belies the idea that any single program or organization, can singlehandedly create lasting large scale change,” noted a groundbreaking article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011.
Job creation alone cannot cure poverty if schools aren’t producing job-ready applicants, there’s no reliable public transit system to get to work, or if substandard housing or exposure to airborne contaminants is making you sick.
That is why I am advocating for City Council to adopt a collective impact framework with the goal of making Detroit a city of opportunity by cutting poverty in half by the year 2038. Our mission: no Detroiter left behind.
In addition, council will have to hold the administration accountable and insist all items submitted for approval must meet a poverty reduction criteria. Does it: create jobs, increase public safety, reduce blight, bring in middle class residents, improve a neighborhood’s aesthetics, reduce human trafficking, improve air quality, etc. Opportunity for all must be baked into every city measure or mandate.
I look forward to working with the City Council to commit to the bold vision of making Detroit a true city of opportunity.
Scott Benson represents Detroit City Council’s 3rd district and chairs its Public Health and Safety Standing Committee.