Poll of Detroit residents finds grim conditions but optimistic outlooks

By Dana Hedgpeth and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 3, 2010; A01

DETROIT -- The decline of the auto industry and the nation's economic slide have left many residents here trapped, without work, in houses they can't sell, in neighborhoods where they fear for their safety, in schools that offer their children a hard road out.

People across the metro area are feeling the stress of an uncertain financial landscape, with majorities worried about the economy, the cost of health care and having enough money to pay their bills. The region's bleak jobs situation is residents' No. 1 concern, by a big margin. That anxiety is compounded by a widely held feeling that the community is divided by race and income.

And yet they haven't given up.

In a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University poll about Detroit, almost all residents of the main three-county metropolitan area see their economy as in ruins. About half say this is a bad place to raise a family; as many describe a declining standard of living, swelling debt, deteriorating neighborhoods and a brutal job market.

A steadfast optimism, however, shines through the poll. A large majority of residents expect that things will get better, with 63 percent optimistic about the area's future and the same percentage expecting their finances to improve over the next decade.

"We've had so much bad news for so long," said Charles Ballard, an economist at Michigan State University, "there's a tendency to think that it has to rebound at some point."

The long struggle here has significance beyond Detroit -- the state has been battered by lost tax revenue, a weakened economy and the highest statewide jobless rate -- resonating throughout the nation. "The plight of these people is also in a way our plight," said Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington-based public policy group that studies globalization and its impact. If one part of the country loses the jobs that support it, he said, the rest of the country pays.

"Michigan is the harbinger," Prestowitz said. "Some think that it is just the auto industry, but the same dynamics that have undercut the auto and manufacturing industries of Michigan are also undercutting the high-tech labs in Silicon Valley and they're also undercutting medical services in Pittsburgh."

Detroit's dependence on the auto industry, which paved the way to middle-class lifestyles for three generations of Americans, has meant a breathtakingly rapid decline here.

Christian Hurley, a 39-year-old poll respondent who works for a company that sells electrical parts to the Big Three, has seen more vacant homes in his Macomb County neighborhood, five alone on his street of nearly three dozen homes.

"A lot of them worked for the Big Three and lost their jobs," he said, "and they just couldn't keep them."

Michigan's 14.7 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, and Detroit's 16.7 percent is the highest for all metro areas with a million or more people.

In the Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll, conducted in November among 1,211 residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, nearly four in 10 call unemployment the area's biggest problem. A third say they or someone at home lost a job in the past year, a figure that swells to 43 percent among union households. Overall, 15 percent say someone in their household has given up looking for work for lack of good jobs.

"You just don't see people getting jobs," said Bryant Westbrook, 34, a former bricklayer. "It's just a depressing place to be. Everybody's struggling so hard to make it. The mom-and-pop shops are going out of business. It's just bad right now."

Residents here see the region's economic recovery as dependent on a revitalization of the auto industry, and many fear that they don't have the qualifications to adapt to a different kind of workplace, even as the state is spending millions of dollars on job training.

Seven in 10 residents say a comeback in the auto industry is necessary for Detroit's economy to improve. Nearly three-quarters say they expect one.

But public officials are not counting on cars to provide the jobs they once did. Michigan has lost roughly 840,000 jobs in the past decade. And by many calculations, the automakers will prosper only if they scale down. General Motors, once the world's largest automaker, has emerged from bankruptcy protection with a new major shareholder: the federal government. It is reinventing itself as a company with fewer brands, fewer plants and fewer workers.

The Michigan economy, economists say, needs to diversify more in not just the auto industry and green energy but also in areas of higher education, biotech and medical, or even in areas that have yet to be discovered.

But economic development experts warn that it will take time.

"It's hard to replace those auto jobs in one, two or even five years," said Tim Bartik, senior economist at the Upjohn Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Kalamazoo, Mich. He said it can take a decade for new and existing companies to blossom into a real industry, making it difficult to offset the continuing loss of auto jobs.

"There's no easy solution," Bartik said. "There will be a transition for some workers to be retrained into new areas, others will move and some will have to take lower wages at new jobs." Creating a new, diversified economy and new jobs, he said, "doesn't happen overnight."

Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) has been trying to stanch the loss of jobs by recruiting employers from overseas, encouraging the growth of "green" industries and offering training for new lines of work.

She said her office has helped create more than 163,000 jobs in 2009 -- many part of the new green economy making wind-turbine and solar-panel parts and batteries for cars.

Eight in 10 in the poll see such industries as worth supporting with tax incentives, and two-thirds view them as likely to become a major part of Detroit's economy.

"We're optimistic that a lot of things are going green with wind power and electric cars," said Dwayne Price, 42, a graphic designer. "There's certainly a lot of buzz from companies that are focused on that. I'm not sure if it's going to really change the job situation right away." To get into these new fields, he thinks more people are going to have to go back to school.

In the poll, nearly four in 10 workers in the Detroit area said they lack the education or skills they need to compete in the job market, including half of African Americans and the unemployed and a majority of those in households with annual incomes under $50,000.

"People are going to have to find different ways to get by," said Price, whose father worked for Ford for 30 years.

Granholm said her office has spent more than $400 million to help enroll more than 100,000 people in retraining programs to become nurses, medical technicians, truck drivers and welders. Still, many workers feel unprepared to adapt to the changing economy.

Detroit once offered the promise of a decent life to poor, unskilled workers who made up for their lack of training and education with a willingness to work. That no longer is enough.

"A lot of those guys who went into those plants years ago, they found religion there," said Carl Taylor, a sociology professor at Michigan State University. "They had a tough time getting in there. They were proud of what they had gained" -- often a house, a car and good benefits -- "and nobody thought it was going to end."

Now many of these workers are realizing, he said, that they don't have marketable skills and they don't have the confidence they need to learn something new.

"They don't feel they have a strong foundation of education to build on," he said.

That is a terrifying experience.

"Now people are stripped to the bone," he said. "You've got hard workers, good, solid Americans who are scared to death. They were counting on the same damn ride as their grandfathers, and that's not there. The golden calf is destroyed."

And the anxiety is palpable.

All told, about two-thirds say the economic situation is a cause of stress, and about half of metro residents say they have been hurt financially by the problems facing the auto industry, with about one in four reporting a "a great deal" of pain.

Half of all whites in the area say their families have been adversely affected by the carmakers' skid; among African Americans, 39 percent say so. By contrast, on many other measures, it is African Americans in the region who have felt the greatest repercussions from the recession.

The contrasting experiences of black and white Detroiters illustrate the broadly held view that the area is mainly divided by race and income. Two-thirds call the area split along these lines, with 21 percent saying it's mainly a racial divide, 32 percent more of an income rift and 11 percent both. Across racial lines, nearly all who see divisions say they are a problem, and both race and income factor into the differences between residents of the predominantly black city and mostly white suburbs.

Across the region, most say the quality of life in their neighborhood has stayed the same over the past five years, but those who've seen a change are three times as likely to say things have gotten worse as better. Five years ago, Detroiters who sensed change were more likely to see things as improving.

In the new poll, the divide is far greater among those who live in the city of Detroit, 42 percent of whom say their neighborhoods have become worse places to live. A sizable number plan to seek somewhere better: One-quarter say they are planning or seriously considering moving out of the area, including 35 percent of city dwellers.

The wide gap in impressions of neighborhood services and quality of life suggests that city residents and suburbanites here live in vastly different worlds.

Across the region, nearly a quarter of blacks -- about double the proportion among whites -- report changing their living arrangements in the past two years to cope with the downturn.

Mildrianne Clark, a 40-year-old African American mother of nine, said her family moved in with her mother-in-law after they couldn't pay their utility bills. Her husband worked in the auto industry before he became ill and unable to work.

"We really need a federal emergency declared for Detroit," Clark said. "We are in an economic disaster. There's no help here. There's no hope here."

Even those who have the wherewithal to reinvent themselves find it's difficult to navigate an economy that offers no promises.

William McMillan Jr. and his wife recently moved their three children into a rental in Wayne County after losing their house to foreclosure.

McMillan, who was laid off in the summer of 2008 from Ford, where he had worked for a total of 10 years, is struggling to make a go of a video business. He's taking classes online in pursuit of a bachelor's degree in communications and has put $50,000 of equipment into his business, with no promise of success.

"You've got to learn more every day so you can stay in the market these days," he said. "I can tell the economy's down because I don't have any money in my pocket. I'm talking to fewer people about jobs and I'm not getting any. It's putting a hurt on my pocket."

Even those with jobs are worried.

Only 38 percent of the area's workforce said it was "not likely at all" that they would lose their job or be laid off in the next 12 months, according to the poll -- a sharp change from 1983, when 61 percent said so.

Among autoworkers, only a quarter said there's no chance they'll lose their job in the next year, lower than the four in 10 workers in other industries who feel that secure.

Conversations with poll respondents revealed that workers in their late 30s and 40s tend to feel a deep sense of betrayal, as their way of life collapses and they see little promise for their children. Nearly three-quarters of those polled who have children at home say they would not recommend a career in manufacturing to them.

"It isn't what it used to be," said Vanessa Taylor, 57, who said she's reluctant to see her six grandchildren go into manufacturing jobs. "That used to be what the whole city did, and the whole state just about. Everybody worked in the factory for a while.

"But I'd like my grandkids to go into something more versatile," she said. "Manufacturing doesn't seem like it is going to pick up anytime soon."

There is little confidence that government will solve the problems that have plagued the state. The public is divided on how large a role the government should play in the economy. And fewer than one in 10 Detroiters express "a lot of confidence" in Washington, Lansing or the city government to get things done.

Nick Mansour, who runs a diner in downtown Pontiac, the Oakland County seat, doubts that the green or health-related jobs public officials are promising will be enough.

"The Big Three used to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs," he said. "Now people are getting laid off. What's their future? How fast are they going to be able to get their jobs back? If not, who else is going to be able to hire them? The food industry? We cannot hire people. We cannot afford them. Telemarketing? Bars? Who?"

Agiesta reported from Washington, Hedgpeth from Detroit. Polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.

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