Blog: Kurt Metzger

A celebrity demographer if there ever was one, Kurt Metzger, director of the Detroit Area Community Indicators System, is the go-to-guru for the latest trends in population flow. This week, Kurt holds forth on the importance of immigration to the region's vitality, right-sizing the city, and neighborhoods of opportunity.

Post 3: Social Equity Must Be Our Goal! How Do We Develop Neighborhoods of Opportunity?

In January 2009, the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion sponsored a conference entitled Opportunity for All: Inequity, Linked Fate and Social Justice in Michigan.  The keynote speaker was john a. powell (no CAPS), a Detroit native who now directs the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State1.   Rather than begin the dialogue about race with a picture of racial/ethnic trends, racial gaps and segregation measures, john's approach is to lay out "opportunity" in a geographic context and, once clear distinctions as to geographic inequities across regional neighborhoods have been described and internalized, introduce race to understand how opportunity and race interact.

Battered by challenging economic conditions, a national housing crisis and the continued decline of the once-robust manufacturing sector, the Detroit region, and the state as a whole, must find innovative ways to capitalize on the assets and redirect its course to be competitive in the 21st century. A significant impediment to this re-invigoration is the widespread and systemic inequity plaguing marginalized populations and communities. Communities of color, particularly African American communities, are more and more isolated from the essential opportunity structures needed to succeed and thrive in the 21st century global society.  Such isolation, caused by factors such as disinvestment, job sprawl, and far less-than-adequate public transit systems, have resulted in a 28.9 percent unemployment rate in Detroit2 and increasing socio-economic gaps.

A significant source of Michigan's inequity is rooted in housing disparity and racial segregation into distressed (or "low opportunity") communities. Geography, race, and poverty are intertwined in the Detroit region: poverty and place work together in a systematic way, fueling racial disparities and isolating communities of color from opportunity. Geographic, social, and racial disparities are more than just indicators of isolation for marginalized populations. These disparities (and resulting inequality) play a significant role in undermining the future for all residents of the Detroit region and the state of Michigan. Acknowledging and addressing these inequities is a critical step to assure a functioning democratic society and prepare the region for its future.

Housing provides more than just shelter. Housing, depending on its location, can be either a conduit or an impediment to opportunity. Housing is the primary conduit to accessing opportunity and building wealth and economic stability in the U.S.  Housing location is the critical leverage point to determining access to education, employment, childcare, and health care or in determining the likelihood of developing assets/wealth through home equity.

Take a moment and think about neighborhood conditions throughout the city of Detroit and the tri-county area (if you have not traveled extensively around the metro area, you should take the opportunity).  Think about the housing, the presence or absence of services, and realize that the case can be easily made - where you live often determines how long you live.  Fifty years of social science research has demonstrated that racially isolated and economically poor neighborhoods restrict employment options for young people, contribute to poor health, expose children to extremely high rates of crime and violence, and house some of the least-performing schools. Neighborhoods powerfully shape residents' access to social, political, and economic opportunities and resources.

One of my key themes, when offered the opportunity to speak of the demographic trends that shaped our region, is the effect of federal actions post-World War II on the city and its populations of color. Federal subsidies for suburban housing and transportation made it economical for middle-class families to leave the city. Because early housing policy often prohibited integrated neighborhoods through lending restrictions and racially restrictive covenants, it was mostly Whites who left and built equity in new neighborhoods. As central cities lost significant population, jobs followed. The loss of tax revenue resulted in increased tax rates for municipal services for those who were least able to shoulder them. Funds for maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure waned3 as money went to subsidizing further suburban and exurban development. This is not a sustainable model for a region whose population in 2008 was 200,000 less than it was 38 years before.

The Detroit region suffers some of the worst racial segregation in its housing and schools in the nation. Analysis of trends in segregation during recent decades indicates that these trends have improved slightly, but generally the region has remained extremely segregated by race in its neighborhoods and its classrooms.  As persons of color, particularly African Americans, have increased their presence in the suburbs substantially since the early 1990s, leading to increasing representation in suburban school districts4, segregation in school systems, particularly at the individual school level, appears to be increasing.

The Kirwan Institute analyzed the characteristics of communities across the region by conducting an "opportunity mapping" analysis. This opportunity mapping analysis looked at a number of indicators of opportunity and community conditions for neighborhoods throughout the Detroit region. This technique of measuring educational opportunities, economic opportunities, and other neighborhood and housing challenges (like concentrated neighborhood poverty, vacant property, or crime), resulted in a comprehensive evaluation of the region's best and most challenged neighborhoods. The findings:

•    The African American community is highly concentrated in low opportunity  areas.
•    While only 36% of the total population lived in the region's low opportunity neighborhoods (which represent two-fifths of the neighborhoods in the region), 90% of the African American population (or nine of ten African Americans) were found in low opportunity neighborhoods.
•    Only 19% of Whites lived in low opportunity communities.
•    While more than 43% of the region's total population lived in high opportunity neighborhoods, less than 4% of the African American population lived in these communities.
•    More than half of the Latino population is concentrated in low opportunity communities.

The Detroit region must be a place where everyone - regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. - must have the opportunity to thrive. This is not only a moral imperative but an economic imperative as well.  Regional success occurs where diversity of opportunity exists. We must all pay attention to these troubling indicators of inequality and opportunity isolation which plague the city, region, and state. 

There are a number of organizations and initiatives in the region working toward the same goal5D-ACIS is working with many of those groups around issues of social equity and funders are recognizing the need to apply a 'social equity lens' in their grantmaking activities.  D-ACIS will be working with john powell and others at Kirwan, along with many local partners, to develop the "neighborhoods of opportunity" methodology for updating the data and measuring our progress.

It is only by addressing these challenges directly can we build a society that is sustainable, equitable, and allows all residents access to the levers of opportunity critical to succeeding in our 21st century society.

1 John will be teaching a class this fall on structural racism through the Wayne State Law School.

2 This is the "official" unemployment rate and does not account for those who are no longer looking for a job.  In addition, employment is counted as any paid work during the week in survey.  As a result, a 40-50% unemployment (and underemployment) for African Americans in the city is more likely the case.

3 SEMCOG has recently released a report identifying regional infrastructure needs over the  next 25 years that dwarf anticipated resources.  We will need to make regional choices as to where we concentrate our funds.

4 Open enrollment across county boundaries has also facilitated this growth.

5 OneD has begun to document these efforts on its website through its issue area of Race Relations.