'Broke': How Detroit Residents Maneuvered The City's Bankruptcy
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have some follow-up reporting on one of the more dramatic urban stories of recent years. We're hearing cameras clicking as a white-haired official steps up to a microphone. It's July 2013.
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RICK SNYDER: This is a very important day in Detroit's history.
INSKEEP: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder...
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SNYDER: Is a very difficult and serious day.
INSKEEP: ...Is standing with an emergency manager who just had the city of Detroit file for bankruptcy.
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SNYDER: We didn't make this decision improvidently or in haste. This has been a decision that, in one fashion or another, has been working its way to the city for the better part of six decades.
INSKEEP: Decades of population loss and economic decline. Starting in 2013, that manager, Kevyn Orr, renegotiated the city's debts, its union contracts and its pensions. The many people who watched the effects included bankruptcy expert Jodie Adams Kirshner.
JODIE ADAMS KIRSHNER: At the time, when Detroit - and really, many other cities were going through bankruptcy, I was teaching and writing about bankruptcy and a big believer in the process. And I was paying attention to policy leaders who were really talking about bankruptcy as a cure-all for distressed cities.
INSKEEP: Although that very optimism made her curious.
KIRSHNER: I was struck, I realized, by the fact that nowhere in that conversation was anyone discussing what bankruptcy would mean for the people living in a city.
INSKEEP: Kirshner has now written a book called "Broke." She spent time in Detroit and learned the stories of ordinary residents, who go by their first names in the book. While the city recovered its financial health, they often did not.
KIRSHNER: In Detroit, the value of property has fallen so far and so fast since the financial crisis that - most Americans have most of their wealth in their houses. In Detroit, we see Cindy (ph), who has paid off her house. But she knows that even if she could find a buyer and sell it, it wouldn't create any opportunities for her to go anywhere else. At one point in the book, she's looking up what it would cost to buy a used camper trailer, and she sees that even a used camper trailer would cost more than the money that she might be able to sell her house for.
INSKEEP: Is this a way to put what you're driving at here - the city files for bankruptcy, which is a way to wipe away the past, to get rid of a lot of the old debts, to start afresh. But the individuals in this city don't get to wipe away the past, and they've still got old property tax bills, and they've still got various fees that they owe the state. They've got all these problems that get in their way of even living a basic life.
KIRSHNER: Yes. And I think a city's finances reflect the circumstances of the people that live in that city. And Detroit, and cities like it, I see as on the sharpest end of the most consequential question facing our country right now, which is what to do with the large population of people who don't have the skills for our current economy.
INSKEEP: How useful is the criminal justice system to the people you focused on?
KIRSHNER: Everybody that I followed worried about crime and safety in their neighborhoods. At a certain point, while I was spending time with her, Lola's (ph) house gets shot in the middle of the night. And a bullet pierces the front window of her house, and its trajectory passes very near to where her daughter is sleeping. And she is so afraid and so ashamed to be raising her daughter in that environment, she immediately calls the investment company in California that owns the house where she lives. And they really never return her phone call, and they never come and fix the window.
INSKEEP: This is what is on my mind. You describe people who in no way are protected from serious crime, yet they're periodically just going down the street or driving somewhere, and they get pulled over, and they quickly end up in jail over some obscure violation.
KIRSHNER: Miles (ph), who I follow, is an example of the criminalization of poverty. He ends up in jail in Detroit for failing to buy a license 14 1/2 years earlier. And he talks often about just wanting to be a legitimate person who can go to work. And instead, we leave him very worried that his record will make it even harder for him to find work in construction than it's already been for him.
INSKEEP: Again and again, in the American auto capital, people with low incomes end up in jail over auto violations.
KIRSHNER: Car insurance has, on average, cost well over $6,000 a year. The national average is $815. The majority of drivers in Detroit have just driven without insurance.
INSKEEP: So people drive without insurance, then they get pulled over for driving without insurance.
KIRSHNER: Which is serious. I mean, there were two stories that really bring this to life. I mean, Miles - we see him carpooling with other construction workers to odd construction jobs, but the people that drive him don't have car insurance either. So they could get arrested at any moment. And Charles (ph), at one point, we see, he's driving a borrowed car from a friend, and he's having a great day. He's going to see another friend. But while he's stopped at a railroad crossing near the Chrysler plant, another car doesn't stop and slams into him.
And he's sitting in his car, and he's so worried about the fact that he doesn't have car insurance but he's been driving anyway. And he's just waiting for the other driver to call the police because somebody with car insurance would do that. And then enough time passes that he realizes that the other driver must not have car insurance either. And they both get out of their cars, and they give each other a big hug because they know that neither of them has insurance. And then they get on their way.
INSKEEP: Did you find any sign that Detroit officials, as they regained control of the city, wanted or were able to address the basic systemic problems you describe?
KIRSHNER: Since the bankruptcy, Detroit has had wonderful leadership, and has - one of the indirect benefits of the bankruptcy is that the city has received so much attention that a lot of talent has come to work in Detroit. My worry is for other cities that don't have the place in our popular culture than Detroit, that wouldn't have the intention that Detroit has had in the wake of the bankruptcy.
INSKEEP: Meaning that there are lots of other cities where individuals face the very same problems you describe but maybe don't have a few of the opportunities that are available in Detroit.
KIRSHNER: Yes, and Detroit ranks as a notorious example of bankruptcy, but it is hardly alone.
INSKEEP: Jodie Adams Kirshner is the author of "Broke: Hardship And Resilience In A City Of Broken Promises." Thanks so much.
KIRSHNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.