A recent study published by JPMorgan Chase aims to provide city leaders with solutions to overcome challenges in Detroit’s labor market. The report indicates that just 26% of the jobs within city limits are held by Detroit residents, and that 64% of workers who reside within city limits commute outside of Detroit for their employment. In another study conducted by Wallet Hub, Detroit is ranked as the third worst city in the U.S. in which to find a job. These statistics support what we are learning from FII families since FII-Detroit began in mid-2014. Many Detroit families have expressed frustration with the lack of employment opportunities in addition to reliable transportation when job opportunities arise.
Detroit is the birthplace of the automotive industry. During the mid-20th century, many southerners, like my grandparents, moved to Detroit seeking the promise of becoming part of a middle class made possible by a booming auto industry. As recently as 1950, nearly 200,000 Detroiters worked in manufacturing jobs. Today, fewer than 20,000 are employed in the sector. Faced with the challenges of high unemployment and a lack of jobs for which they are qualified, FII families have been working to position themselves for the employment opportunities that are available. 42% of the initial FII-Detroit families have taken steps to obtain educational goals such as obtaining their GED, completing college courses, and entering trade schools. These families understand that in order to improve their economic situation, they must prepare themselves to meet the demands of a changing job market.
While many FII families have decided that furthering their education is the right choice to improve their economic standing, others have turned to business ownership. More than 70% of businesses that FII families have created where formed after joining FII. One of FII’s family partners, Richard Finch, was working for Chrysler making $25/hour. Consistent hours and a good living wage allowed him to provide for his wife and their 7 children. When the recession hit, and Chrysler restructured employee contracts, his wage was reduced to $10 an hour…an amount that was not enough to sustain his family.
While working at Chrysler, Richard decided to strike out on his own and start a business. Using a combination of savings and earnings, Richard purchased a tow truck. It took three years to turn one tow truck into three trucks, while also employing five members of his community. Despite his success and initiative, Richard wasn’t considered “credit-worthy” through traditional means. However, through hard work and determination he was able to obtain and live his dream. According to Richard, “Had I had accesses to capital, I could have employed more people and made more money, sooner. But it was the best decision I could have made. The money is good, but because I set my own schedule, I’m able to spend more time with my children, and that’s what it’s all about.” Richard is now utilizing a matched savings program through FII to start a transportation business for the elderly.
Studies and findings like the ones from JP Morgan and WalletHub reflect the reality of many families living in Detroit. But that is only part of the story. While it is important for our nation to invest in its infrastructure, it is equally, if not more important that we invest our greatest asset: people. As a life-long Detroit resident, I do not want the studies to be used as a trigger for imposing solutions on us. Rather, I prefer that these studies be used to ask what IS working.
Instead of only responding when something is wrong or broken, what if we support and invest in the strength and hard work our families demonstrate, every day? As we invest in their initiative and resourcefulness, families are more likely to sustain their progress. We know FII families can pull themselves out of poverty. Now, we need to provide them with access to resources that fuel this positive momentum. If the neighborhoods of Detroit are to experience a similar resurgence that is taking place in our downtown and midtown regions, it is essential that we develop strength-based policies that work with and for the people. Detroit does better when its people are doing better.
Our families don’t need to be “saved.” They may lack wealth, power, and influence…but they are strong, savvy, and resilient. As a collective, their power is evident and bears truth to the axiom, “the power is within the people.” Partner with us in fueling this power. Partner with us in leveraging our families’ ideas and solutions. Let’s change the narrative about low-income families.
Kofi Kenyatta joined FII in 2014, and was instrumental in the launch of FII-Detroit. He has held many positions with nonprofits focused on family development, housing access, and quality of life issues. Kofi has served as Director of Compliance and lead facilitator for The 180 Program, as well as on the Executive Board of the 13th Congressional District in Michigan, and has worked as a political consultant on national, state, and local campaigns.