auto

Don't blame Detroit's woes on car industry

Arthur Wheaton, Cornell UniversityIn many ways, Detroit has become the poster child for all that can go wrong with a great American city.

Once an economic and cultural power, Detroit's standing has eroded sharply for decades. Some critics blame the decline of the U.S. auto industry for contributing to Motor City blight.

However, the truth is not that simple, according to Arthur Wheaton, an auto industry expert and director of western New York labor and environmental programs at the Worker Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Wheaton says many factors contributed to Detroit's decline, including a mass exodus of city residents who moved to new locales. And, he argues that today's auto industry is playing an important role in getting the city back on track.

He expands on those thoughts in the following interview.

You state that it is unfair to blame the U.S. car industry for Detroit's urban blight. Why do critics say the auto industry is to blame for Detroit's downfall?

Many folks associate the auto industry with Detroit and refer to the city as Motor City.

Clearly the auto industry is related to the city of Detroit. The bankruptcy of General Motors, once the largest corporation in the world, had an impact on the city. There is very strong imagery associated with General Motors' bankruptcy, and that had a negative impact on the reputation of the city.

Some of the criticism about the auto industry and blight (in) Detroit is not unreasonable. There are many abandoned buildings and underutilized buildings in the city of Detroit that used to be automotive-related buildings.

The manufacturing base in the Rust Belt cities has certainly left behind more than their fair share of brown fields and dilapidated buildings. Showing pictures or photographs of former plants is easy and powerful in placing blame on the auto industry.

Why do you think the critics are incorrect?

The automotive industry association with the city of Detroit is quite different from the cause of the financial blight of the city.

(Of) the Detroit Three automakers, only General Motors has their corporate headquarters in Detroit. Ford has long been the face of the city of Dearborn, and Chrysler is located in Auburn Hills. Both are suburbs of Detroit but share little in terms of budgets and financial planning.

From the global perspective, there is no clear geographic boundary between suburbs and the city. It all appears to be Detroit from outside of Michigan. The automotive industry is certainly important to the state of Michigan and employs tens of thousands of workers in the state.

(A study by business consultant Jon) Gabrielsen estimates that 95 percent of the jobs in metro Detroit are outside the city limits of Detroit. The geographic boundary is important for tax and revenue purposes. While people in the Detroit area may work in auto-related jobs, they do not provide tax revenue to pay the services and benefits for the city.

These 95 percent (of) jobs make a big difference for the local school districts, maintenance fees and other local infrastructure projects, but they do not necessarily help the public schools and city workers in Detroit.

Which other factors have contributed to Detroit's fall?

The exodus of manufacturing jobs from the Rust Belt cities is an unfortunate and common phenomenon. Another factor in reducing the number of auto jobs is directly linked to advances in productivity and technology. The automotive industry can simply build many more vehicles today with far fewer hourly workers.

The Detroit Free Press conducted an exhaustive story on the truth and myths surrounding the Detroit bankruptcy. There was little blame placed on the auto industry as the cause of the bankruptcy. There are a variety of factors that led to the bankruptcy, with many relating to a mass exodus of residents.

The cause of Detroit's bankruptcy is very easy to figure out -- 60 percent of the population moved. The reasons for Detroit's bankruptcy and the reason for the mass exodus of over 1 million people from the city are more complicated. Some of those reasons through the years have included race relations, crime, underperforming schools and lack of good-paying jobs.

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