Middle class growth stagnates in Detroit, Future City report finds

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

Detroit — A new report by Detroit Future City finds that middle-class lifestyles remain out of reach for most in the city, particularly for African Americans.

Detroit has experienced "little to no growth in its middle-class households since 2010," according to the nonprofit think tank that seeks the city's revitalization. Detroit was the nation's second most impoverished big city in 2019 with 30.6% of its residents living below the poverty line compared with Cleveland's 30.8%.

Several factors contribute to the city's stagnant middle-class growth, including access to quality employment and a low entrepreneurship rate, the group said.

The growth of the middle class in Detroit has stagnated, a report by the group Detroit Future City found.

The report, which was developed with the input of "nearly 500 community stakeholders" from a variety of areas, shows that Detroit consistently lags behind the region in economic, health and other conditions.

Median income in the city is half of what it is in the region; those living in Detroit have a life expectancy rate five years less than those living elsewhere in the region. Only 5% of people living in Detroit live in a middle-class neighborhood, compared to 59% in the region as a whole.

"The purpose of this report is not to make readers angry about these statistics; at DFC, we want to see change," Detroit Future City CEO Anika Goss wrote in the report's forward. "We understand that the systemic racism of the policies of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s continue in economic development policy even today."

About 27% of all Detroit households fall in the middle class as of 2019, making it one of the worst cities in the country for share of middle-class households (and ahead of only Cleveland).

In the region, about 40% of households fall in the middle class, which the report defines as households earning between 80% and 300% of the national median income. Nationally, about 39% of all households were considered middle class in 2019. The median household income in Detroit is $33,970, up from 2010 but just over half of the region's median income of $63,000, the report notes. 

Part of the reason that number has fallen? In the past two decades, Detroit has slowly lost African-American middle-class households. Now, 54% of African American middle-class households in the 11-county Metro Detroit region live outside the city itself, something the report notes prevents Detroit from growing its middle-class neighborhoods. About 5% of Detroit residents live in middle-class neighborhoods.

Goss said in a Friday interview with The Detroit News editorial board that the most alarming trend is that the only places that are growing is new middle class neighborhoods, which are largely White areas in downtown, Midtown and a few other areas.

"Detroit is losing ground on attracting Black middle-class families," she said.

White households are most likely to be considered middle class. In Detroit, 35% of White households were middle-class, compared with 28% of Hispanic households and 26% for African Americans.

A lack of labor force participation is contributing to the city's lack of revitalization. Detroit ranks last among the most populous 100 cities in the United States with 67% of residents participating in the labor force. By comparison, the national and regional rates are 75%.

The report didn't find a huge difference in labor force participation between races and ethnicities, but it noted Blacks have an unemployment rates 1.5 times those of White and Hispanic people. The overall unemployment rate in Detroit is 11%.

One way to improve that would be to bring in more "middle-wage jobs," which pay more than a median wage and are held by a person without a bachelor's degree. While the number of jobs in the region grew 21% between 2010 and 2019, jobs considered "accessible but low-wage" grew 32%, outpacing middle-wage work.

Attracting more middle-wage jobs to the region and growing small businesses would allow for income growth, the report notes, as would better preparing Detroiters for the workforce.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's administration has been touting what he's dubbed the "People Plan," a set of initiatives designed to combat structural racism, poverty and inadequate educational opportunities. 

Among them are paid high school completion and skilled trades training programs. In August, city officials unveiled the Detroit Community Health Corps. to aid struggling families with utility payments, housing and job prospects. 

The report's findings weren't exclusively negative. One key factor, the city's infant mortality rate, dropped 17% between 2010 and 2019.

While the rate in Detroit — 11 per thousand live births — is about 1.7 times the rate of the rest of the state, the drop can be largely attributed to "a substantial and coordinated public-private effort to reduce infant mortality in the city," the report notes. The rate is the lowest it has been since at least 1990, which city officials have credited to support initiatives such as free Lyft rides to prenatal appointments and SisterFriends, a program that matches newly pregnant mothers with more experienced ones.

In the U.S., the rate is about 5.6 per thousand live births. In Michigan, it is about 6.4 per thousand.

To make Detroit a more equitable city for all residents, the report recommends improving educational performance, increasing middle-wage jobs, boosting support for minority-owned small businesses, improving access to affordable health care, strengthening middle-class neighborhoods and adding affordable housing.

Several candidates in this year's mayoral election, including Duggan, who is seeking his third four-year term, have based their campaigns on some of those issues, including increased access to education, housing and jobs. 

Having a prepared workforce attracts more middle-wage jobs, which in turn can strengthen middle-class neighborhoods, Detroit City Future said. More access to housing and health care means Detroiters can remain in the city, pushing it closer to the economic equity the report envisions.

"No longer can the only focus be on growth — there must be a renewed focus on ensuring that growth is not only equitable, but that it is just and reparative, and that all residents have the opportunity to participate," the report concluded. "All sectors have an active role to play in developing solutions. It is through this collective action that we can and will build an economically equitable future for Detroit."