Assaulting Detroit’s Poor


A few months ago, I wrote about Detroit’s bankruptcy, and how it had been structured without input from its poorest citizens. With unemployment rising, many of its buildings destroyed, and power outages due to bad weather, it seemed like Detroit couldn’t get worse for its remaining 700,000 residents.

It’s Worse Than It Seems

Then, the city of Detroit decided to cut water off to thousands of residents who were more than $150 behind on their bills. Leave aside the fact that people can’t pay their water bills partly because prices have gone up 119% in the past decade. Also leave aside that this has been condemned as a human rights violation by activists and the UN. One reporter actually said the poor in Detroit are deliberately not paying water bills even though they have the money, justifying the city’s draconian measures.

The city’s enforcement of debts has been highly selective, and just like law enforcement throughout the US, it’s targeted the poor. Detroit’s stadiums, arenas, and commercial users owe over $30 million on their water bills. But don’t expect the city to cut off water to golf courses any time soon. That would probably upset Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s loaded campaign donors.

An Assault on the Poor

The story of political and economic inequality doesn’t end with water for Detroit’s poor citizens. The recent public pension cuts, grudgingly agreed to by Detroit’s workers, will further shrink consumer demand. Mainstream media outlets make it seem as if Detroit residents overwhelmingly approved of the plan. While 73% did vote in favor of the cuts, they didn’t have much of a choice; if they rejected the plan, the cuts would have been more severe. Moreover, only half of the pension-holders voted at all.¬†Detroit’s not seeking a shared sacrifice from all of its residents – it’s engaging in massive upward redistribution, where creditors are being repaid on the backs of workers who had been guaranteed pensions.

Now What?

Detroit sets a dangerous precedent for other cities because public pensions no longer seem inviolable. But the people of Detroit are fighting back against the water cuts, even as the city pretends there’s no public health crisis. Some activists have even created a platform where donors can help Detroiters pay their water bills. The city’s responded with brute force and rapid arrests. ¬†It’s crucial that activists persevere, remembering Martin Luther King’s old adage: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Author: Edwin Jain

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