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Poll of Detroit residents finds grim conditions but optimistic outlooks

The collapse of America's auto industry and the U.S. economy has left Detroit in shambles. In a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University Detroit poll, many residents believe their economy is in ruins.
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Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 3, 2010

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.

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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.

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