Finley: Detroit Democratic debate primed to tackle urban issues

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

President Donald Trump's Twitter attack on the city of Baltimore as a “rodent infested” place where “no human being would want to live” drew him fresh charges of racism and boorishness. But if there's an upside, it's that it assures urban issues will get some serious stage time during two nights of Democratic debates this week in Detroit.

Detroit and Baltimore are not twin cities by any stretch, but they share similar characteristics and the same challenges that face most big cities in America. 

There's no better place to discuss those struggles than in Detroit, where 57% of children live below the poverty line and a rate of 2,057 violent crimes per 100,000 residents rank it as the second most violent city in America. 

The Detroit Public Schools Community District is the worst-performing urban school system in the nation. Black home ownership has dropped to 40% from 51% since 2000. More than half the city's residential lots are vacant, and despite an aggressive demolition effort, 70,000 abandoned buildings remain standing. 

"There needs to be an urban agenda as part of this campaign," says Sheila Cockrel, former Detroit City Council member and CEO of Citizen Detroit, a group dedicated to raising civic engagement. "When's the last time you heard anything about an urban agenda? That's become a swear word in Washington."

Cockrel ticks off the pieces that would make up a sound policy for restoring central cities:

"We need to address access to capital for residents who have been structurally discriminated against. We need a criminal justice policy. Address low-income housing, focus on education and rectifying the structural imbalance that has existed from the point of time that busing was struck down to deal with patterns of structural residential segregation.

"We need policies that are rooted in equity and access -- those would be the hallmarks of an urban agenda."

She identifies the target of that agenda in one word: Poverty.

More than 59 percent of Detroit children lived in poverty in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the national Kids Count report, an annual project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"We have to have a strategy on the part of all the main actors to address poverty and its multigenerational consequences."

Dr. Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, would focus the poverty fight on children.  

"One of the big issues that affects both Detroit and Baltimore is childhood poverty," he says. "We have among the highest rates of childhood poverty in the country in the city of Detroit. What do the candidates want to do to impact that? It's an absolutely critical thing for them to be talking about in relation to Detroit and other central cities."

Thompson says both Detroit and Baltimore face lead poisoning crises, stemming from the use of lead-based paint in homes from the 1920s to its ban in 1978. Detroit hospitals treat 1,600 children a year for lead poisoning; 4,500 cases are recorded statewide.

"We have a huge number of kids who are entering school set back already by challenges that are introduced in the first few years of their lives," he says. "Kids who are crawling and getting lead dust on their hands. At most, we are abating 100-200 homes a year through public funding.

"Do we have the fiscal capacity in this country to rid all homes of lead? We certainly do."

Also high on Thompson's priority list is reducing domestic violence. The highest category of crime in Detroit is aggravated assault, most of them stem from domestic disputes, and many of those are witnessed by children. 

Other issues Thompson would like the candidates to discuss are premature births -- they rival third-world numbers in Detroit -- and finding employment for newly released prisoners.

"A huge number of kids are dying before they get out of the womb," he says.

One Trump program -- tax breaks for those who invest in high poverty census tracts -- shows promise, he says, but needs more oversight.

Education is the cornerstone of any successful effort to revive urban America. Lots of ideas have been tested in Detroit and elsewhere, but a silver bullet for improving the performance of schools in high poverty areas has proved elusive.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon says his crime-fighting job would be much easier if schools worked right.

"One of the things all urban communities have in common is how young people of color are being educated," Napoleon says. "Can we address the ability of every child in this nation to get a quality education? That would be a game changer if we ever committed to it."

Expect the Democratic debaters to talk a lot about job creation. In Detroit, creating jobs isn't the problem; it's tearing down the barriers for Detroiters to fill those jobs. That requires effective skills training, a better public transportation system and rational drug-testing policies.

The debaters will be speaking to a national audience, but they'll be standing on a stage in Detroit. That's a unique platform for addressing issues that are tormenting urban communities nationwide, but particularly in the industrial Midwestern states like Michigan that will be so critical to their hopes in 2020. 

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.