Report: To Grow, Detroit Needs to Expand African-American Middle Class

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According to Detroit Future City’s latest report, middle-class households comprise a majority in only 12 of the city’s 297 census tracts. // Photograph courtesy of Detroit Future City

Detroit Future City, a nonprofit that works to improve the city’s long-term revitalization, has released a report, “Growing Detroit’s African-American Middle Class,” which provides a benchmark through which the African-American middle class can serve as a measure to expand the housing market.

The study sets the goal of adding 33,800 middle-class households of all races in Detroit to bring the city’s share of middle class in line with that of the region. To ensure that Detroit is growing equitably, the report states it is important that the share of middle-class African Americans are brought in line with that of the region.

For African-Americans, it would require an increase of 27,700 middle-class households in Detroit. No other races were listed in the study.

The report is part of DFC’s mission to providing accessible, data-driven strategies dedicated to moving the city forward and stems from the 2017 release of its “139 Square Miles” report.

“In ‘139 Square Miles,’ we noted that 75 percent of Detroiters have household incomes of less than $50,000, which led us to take a deep dive into the city’s African-American middle class and how more equitable growth can lead to a brighter future for all Detroiters,” says Anika Goss, executive director of DFC.

In the report, DFC defines the middle class as those with a household income between 80 percent and 200 percent of the national median income. This translates to households earning between $46,100 to $115,300 per year. Using this definition, 64,700 of the city’s 258,000 households are middle-class, about 25 percent. Of those middle-class households, 51,400 are African American.

“Detroit’s growth and progress hinges on understanding what the city looks like now and how we might address challenges and foster opportunities, says Katy Locker, Detroit program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funded the study. “We need the data to do that. Detroit Future City’s latest report provides leaders and residents alike with information and insights that will help to guide decision-making and help build an even better Detroit.”

Middle-class households reside in areas across Detroit, but comprise a majority in only 12 of the city’s 297 census tracts, or 4 percent. The neighborhoods are some of Detroit’s most well-known, including parts of Grandmont Rosedale, University District, Green Acres, Sherwood Forest, Palmer Woods, Boston-Edison, East English Village, Regent Park, Indian Village, and a portion of downtown.

“Increasing Detroit’s share of middle-class households is a commitment to creating opportunities to grow the existing population, retaining existing middle-class households and attracting new ones,” says Goss.

Detroit Future City provides a set of recommendations in “Growing Detroit African American Middle Class” calling on policy-makers and investors to set deliberate strategies in order to achieve goals laid out in the report. One key recommendation is a focus on improving educational attainment for residents at the two-year certification and four-year degree level and connecting attainment to higher-wage jobs.

“Detroiters with a bachelor’s degree make less than their counterparts in the suburbs and, on average, make in income below the middle-class threshold,” Goss says. “We have identified this inequity, quantified it, and now we have to address it.”

Educational attainment and income become a factor in retention and growth in near-middle-class neighborhoods, as well. Only 12 of Detroit’s 297 census tracts meet the definition of a middle-class neighborhood, giving Detroit among the lowest share of total middle-class neighborhoods among the 50 largest U.S. cities.

There are 91 other census tracts, however, where 30 percent to 50 percent of the households are middle or upper middle class. Focusing on lifting households in these “near-middle class neighborhoods” to that next level of prosperity can pay big dividends for the economic growth of Detroit.

“If we want to see more black people enter the middle class, we must invest in endeavors and interventions that lead to better-paying jobs, affordable housing, efficient transportation and effective schools,” says Andre M. Perry, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution, who provided the foreword in the report based upon his research focused on race and structural inequality, education, and economic inclusion. “The focus on development must be directed at uplifting a greater percentage of current residents so that they have the necessary tools to enter the middle class.”

DFC also calls for the deliberate recruitment of African-American middle-class individuals in specific professions to help close the economic equity gap in the city and region.

“Growing Detroit’s African-American Middle Class” is available online at www.detroitfuturecity.com.

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