Detroit tops nation in poverty census




August 31, 2005


 Detroit is the nation's poorest big city, with about one in three residents living below the federal poverty level -- $19,157 in household income for a family of four.


 The U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday that 33.6% of Detroiters had income below the poverty level in 2004, compared with about 23% in 2002. In the two-year span, "you're talking somewhere easily between 75,000 to 80,000 more people living in poverty" in Detroit, said Kurt Metzger, research director of Wayne State University's Center for Urban Studies.


 And nearly half of Detroit children 17 and younger lived in impoverished homes in 2004.


 The two pieces of bad news come as Detroit struggles with a high unemployment rate, a municipal budget teetering on bankruptcy and its core auto industry struggling.


 The numbers also signaled, said researchers, that middle-class Detroiters are leaving the city.


 El Paso, Texas, followed Detroit in 2004 with a 28.8% poverty rate. In 2003, Cleveland topped the list.


 A family of four is considered living below the poverty level if their income is $19,157 or less. A single person age 65 or older is considered impoverished with an income of $9,060 or less.


 Some 47.8% of Detroit children lived below the poverty level in 2004, ranking Detroit second in that category only behind Atlanta.


 Detroit's unemployment rate has hovered around 15% for much of the year.


 "The question is how many people have given up," said Metzger. "We have almost historically high unemployment rates. We're at unemployment rates we were at in the late 1980s and early 1990s."


 The median income of a Detroit household was $27,871 in 2004, meaning half of households earned more and half less. That's far below the median income for the average Michigan family, which was $44,280 in 2003-04, down about 3% from $45,550 in 2002-03.


 The census numbers suggested that Detroiters with means are leaving the city.


 "You're leaving people in poverty in the city, but you're moving people with higher income outside," said Larry Ledebur, an economic development professor at Cleveland State University and former director of WSU's Center for Urban Studies.


 Michigan's poverty rate also increased, rising from 11.5% of the population in 2002-03 to 12.3% in 2003-04.


 "We don't need a report out of Washington to tell us that people in Michigan are hurting," said Liz Boyd, spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Granholm is pressing for an increase in the state's hourly minimum wage to $7.15 from the federal standard of $5.15.


 A spokesman for Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said the city is trying to lure diverse industries to the city to help bring new jobs for its citizens.


 "By partnering with organizations like the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, we're creating new economies and innovative educational opportunities," said Kilpatrick spokesman Howard Hughey.


 Sheldon Danziger, the codirector of the National Poverty Center, said Michigan was particularly hard hit because of the continued decline in manufacturing jobs. The median household income adjusted for inflation in Wayne County, for example, has declined by 10% since 2000 while the national decline was only 3%.


 "This region has been hit pretty hard," said Danziger. "We were doing much better in the 1990s than the national average. But since 2000, we've been doing worse."


 For organizations that provide services for poor residents, the census news came as no surprise.


 "I think we already knew that," said Mary Ellen Howard, director of the St. Frances Cabrini Clinic in Detroit, which provides free medical and mental health services to about 150 people a week. "We get a lot more people in here than we can handle, so we don't even keep track of the number of people that we have to refer elsewhere."


 She added: "We only have three fish and five loaves and there are 5,000 people on the hillside waiting to be fed."


 At the Jeffries East, a public housing project on Detroit's west side, Constance Weatherspoon spoke Tuesday about being poor.


 "This is one of the worst times in my life to live in a place like this," said Weatherspoon, 32, who has lived in the project for four years.


 Weatherspoon is legally blind. Per month, she receives $579 in Supplemental Security Income for herself and $425 from the state's Department of Human Services for her daughter, 11, and sons, 9 and 7. She also receives $230 in food stamps a month.


 "I'm trying to live for them," she said.


Contact PATRICIA MONTEMURRI at 313-223-4538 or


Living poor


 A family of four is considered living below the poverty level if their income is $19,157 or less.


                   % population below poverty level   Median household income

Michigan                      12.3%                                    $44,905

Detroit                          33.6%                                    $27,871

Wayne County              20.1%                                    $40,322

Oakland County             5.3%                                    $63,035

Macomb County             7.2%                                    $51,215


Macomb County numbers come from a 2002 U.S. census survey. Other numbers come from a 2004 survey released Tuesday, in which Macomb County was not included.

Source: U.S. Census


Copyright 2005 Detroit Free Press Inc.