Let's Invest in Detroit: A Marshall Plan for America's Cities

Sometimes the news cycle spins in stunning ways. Take what happened in Detroit last month.
On November 13th, the Detroit Free Press ran a major story on the number of people murdered in the city since the first of January 2003. "3,313 Lives Lost to Homicide," the headline read. It's easy to let the number wash over you. So here's a comparison. In the last nine years more Americans had been killed in the streets of Detroit than were killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11. A hundred sixty-two more, to be exact.

Three days later Mayor Dave Bing asked the police department to take a ten percent pay cut. Immediately the critics descended. "Not deep enough," wrote the Detroit News on November 17th, "Not wide enough. Not bold enough." Cut the cops' pensions and their health care. Cut their numbers too, said the president of the City Council. Detroit's about to go broke. Something drastic has to be done.

Yes it does. But the answer isn't to slice more deeply into the city's workforce. Or to slash benefits. Or to sell off the street lights and privatize the buses. Nor is it to throw Detroit into receivership so the State of Michigan can do the dirty work instead. The answer is something genuinely wider and deeper and bolder.

It's time this country gave a damn.

Forty-five years ago the great civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph called on the federal government to launch a Marshall Plan for American cities. He asked for a $185 billion in federal spending over ten years' time. With that investment, he argued, the unemployment could be put to work, crumbling neighborhoods rebuilt, schools improved, the lives of the poor transformed.

Of course conditions were better then. The unemployment rate was far lower, city schools weren't as devastated, neighborhoods not as blighted, the gap between rich and poor not as great. So the cost would be higher now. But let's just go with Randolph's figure. Adjusted for inflation, $185 billion translates into $1.3 trillion today. According to government estimates, the war in Iraq -- America's erstwhile response to the terror of 9/11 -- will cost the county at least $4 trillion once all the bills are paid. For a third of that sum -- a third -- the country could finally put Randolph's plan into place.

It's an easy idea to dismiss. The federal government is itself on an austerity binge, at least when it comes to social spending. And we know that government programs don't work, that they only make problems worse, that it's best to let the free market works it magic, that the poor we will always with us. It's ludicrous to imagine that the county might want to save cities like Detroit.

Then you see those stories side by side. Three thousand people murdered. Not statistics, not dots on a map, but people. Somebody's mother. Somebody's father. Somebody's child. Far too many children. Instead of facing that horror -- and horror it is -- the city's most powerful figures are talking about shrinking the police force so the budget can be balanced. And you have to ask yourself why a new Marshall Plan seems ludicrous while cutting the city to the bone seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

The truth is Detroit's not going to solve its problems alone. It's going to need help. Other places do too. Buffalo, Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, Gary, Memphis, New Orleans, Brownsville: the list of struggling cities goes on and on. For far too long this country has let them bleed. It's time to stop, to admit that what's happening isn't right, to say that Detroit's problems are the nation's problems; that we can make it better, if only we have the courage to try. If only we give a damn.