A disgusting fact: 57 percent of Detroit’s children now live in poverty. Child poverty rates in the Motor City increased by 13 percent between 2006 and 2014. Americans should be ashamed of what has happened in Detroit. The city’s Democratic leadership should be ashamed. It is a man-made and political catastrophe.
At the root of the child poverty crisis is Detroit’s economic collapse. And although civic-minded private investors are doing their part, pumping billions worth of private capital into downtown Detroit, the city government continues to flail and founder. Why? One reason is the city’s punitive property tax rates. As researchers noted last year, Detroit’s taxes are high yet its revenues are pathetically low. For a city that has just barely begun to emerge from bankruptcy, the notion of high taxes in pursuit of higher employment is one that defies belief. Yet it is liberal orthodoxy.
Another issue is crime. After all, while Detroit cut crime last year, the city’s population remains plagued by gang violence and the coercion of teenagers into criminality.
But as uncomfortable as it may be for many civic boosters to admit, Detroit’s defining challenge is its entrenched liberalism. Consider one example. Democratic Mayor Michael Duggan last week announced a program to pay for two years of free community college for local high school graduates. On paper, the program sounds great. Trouble is, “Detroit Promise” promises too much. The program will pay for too many courses, proving before the program even begins that Duggan and his backers are unable to make hard choices about investing limited resources. Put explicitly, Detroit should be funding education in pursuit of employment in trades such as plumbing and electrical work and basic business skills. It should not be spending money it does not have on music and literature and liberal arts. While those studies are crucial to the diversified intellectual health of the nation, they will do little to spur productive investment in the economic potential of Detroit’s people. That is urgent.
But what does this mean for conservatives?
As uncomfortable as it may be for many civic boosters to admit, Detroit’s defining challenge is its entrenched liberalism
As Opportunity Lives‘ Ellen Carmichael noted recently, conservatives must urgently re-engage with our fellow citizens who live in inner cities. And we have many options for doing so. First, we should focus on a unitary federal-state-local effort to confront gang violence more effectively. Democrats have manifestly failed here and fresh approaches are crucial. We should expand use of racketeering laws to confront gang leaders. At the same time, we should also pursue criminal justice reform that encourages rehabilitation against recidivism.
Second, we should re-focus education grants on the expansion of skills-based training to allow young people to find long-term career prospects with good salaries. We must wage war on the false idea that being a plumber is somehow inferior work.
And fostering personal responsibility in the defense of the lives of children, we must be ready to incentivize but also penalize parents who fail in their duties. For those parents receiving welfare, for example, we should move to require attendance at alcohol and drug addiction meetings. Detroit civil society activists run many such programs, so attendance need not be prohibitive. We should also promote qualifying access to welfare and — if necessary — retention of custody rights for children on those children attending school.
Some might say these measures are harsh, but they are wrong. Human poverty — financial, moral and financial — is not a cause to which we can turn a blind eye. That is the domain of the socialist. Most of all, whether we are talking about cities politics — as I’ve noted in relation to Chicago — or free trade, or something else entirely, conservatives must take heed of the historically proven reality that our ideology serves the most vulnerable citizens.
In the end though, conservatives must also be unafraid to raise the critical importance of the family as an anchor point for social mobility, personal opportunity and societal health. On those subjects, I’ll have more to say in the coming week.
Tom Rogan is a Senior Contributor for Opportunity Lives and writes for National Review. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.