The High Cost Of Being Poor In Detroit

The High cost of being poor in Detroit

Does it cost more to be poor? I know that's quite a loaded question.

I recently sat in on a panel discussion on the subject of The High Cost of Being Poor.

Moderated by Ford Curatorial Fellow Scott Campbell, we talked to:

  • Tracie McMillan - a former managing editor of the award-winning magazine City Limits, has written about food and class for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Harper's Magazine, and Slate.

  • LeWanda Gipson - Deputy Director of Matrix Human Services

  • Kristin Seefeldt - Policy-trained sociologist in the School of Social Work at University of Michigan

The three panelists and the moderator sitting on stools in front of an audioence at the MOCAD.

The three panelists and the moderator sitting on stools in front of an audioence at the MOCAD.

Some heavy hitters on this panel. Call me a nerd, but I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.

Here are the main points that were made.

The Major Costs of Being Poor In Detroit:


1. Health Costs

A person laying down on the street on top of a blanket. Their legs, Nike shoes and skateboard next to them.

A person laying down on the street on top of a blanket. Their legs, Nike shoes and skateboard next to them.

Living conditions in low-income communities in Detroit are grim. Many properties have mold, asbestos, lead and other pollutants in the household. Because of all of these things, many children get asthma.

An interesting point that Professor Seefeldt made was that the system has done an “ok” job with covering health insurance for children (not adults). But just because they have access to health care, does not mean they can actually get to their appointments.

Families struggle because as the kids get sick, they cannot seek medical help because doing so takes time and transportation (two things many families don't have).

Families cannot take time off work because they are afraid to become targets to be fired. They cannot afford to lose their job.

We also can’t forget that the available positions for people in this population often endure terrible work conditions. Juggling hundreds of other factors, I can only imagine how tough it is to live in a situation like this.  Seefeldt says that rates of depression, PTSD and anxiety are 2 to 3 times higher in these populations.

Is There Policy Change To Address This issue?

Short answer: no.

“We keep hearing that notion “We want to bring money back to the neighborhoods”, but they never define what the neighborhoods are. What we see are that dollars are coming into Midtown and Downtown, but then when we go over the neighborhoods...north of 7 mile...the dollars aren’t there.” - LeWanda Gipson


2. Food Access

The panelists describe the difficulty of getting nutritional food in low income communities.

Not to make light of a situation, but if you’re watching season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there’s an episode (no spoilers), where Titus gets scurvy and needs vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables.

Titus and Lillian look around their neighborhood and can’t find anything but citrus flavored candy from their nearby bodega. They couldn’t find anything that was nutrient dense. Titus bought citrus flavored lube y’all and he used it for BREAD DIPPING. (He casually mentions it on episode 6 y’all it was hilarious go watch it)

Me when I saw this episode and then me again at the panel:

This situation is what journalists like to call a “food desert”.

Basically when you live in a food desert, access to life sustaining food (fruits and vegetables) is hard to find in your neighborhood.

Now, I don’t have the actual statistics, but I do remember hearing that Detroit is not as much of a food desert as the majority media may say.

I would agree, but panelist Tracie McMillan gives the situation a bit more nuance:

She says that just because there’s a grocery store is within the area, that does not mean it takes the community out of food desert status. The store needs to have accessible hours to the community for it to be useful, and the prices need to be within the range that people can afford.

A person holding pea pods with peas still inside.

A person holding pea pods with peas still inside.

It’s also not just about “do I have money to buy food” but it’s also about “do I have the time and the skill to make most of my dollar.” - McMillan

Some people might have the skill to cook healthy food for their family, but not the time to actually do that for their family.

LeWanda Gipson mentions that even if people have money to buy food from these stores, families tend to make decisions that would save them more time.

This pushes families to choose quick servings from McDonalds and frozen entrees from the liquor store on the corner.

It may seem absurd to a lot of people, but imagine the choices you would make if you’re working multiple jobs and carrying the weight of several family members. To me, cooking a fresh meal would be one of the last things on my mind.

“It’s just not an option for a lot of families.” Gipson says.

Food Stamps / Meals on Wheels / SNAP

Currently, many of these programs are becoming defunded under our current 2017 Administration.  Gipson mentioned that the loss of these programs would be devastating for seniors that are homebound. Outside of that, we would no longer be able to service the families that show up every week for assistance. Gipson says that these lines grow up to 250 families deep each week.

3. Predatory Financial Institutions

Payday advances have predatory effects. The panelists talked about how many people flock to payday loan advances as a common financial option.

Gipson explained the scenario:

  1. Person gets a payday loan to cover an emergency

  2. Loan must be paid in two weeks

  3. Person can’t pay

  4. Wage garnishment and interest continue to rack up

  5. Even more financial pressure is added to an already tight budget

Someone covering their face with their hands.

A common question someone might have is, “Why don’t they just NOT get a payday advance?”

Journalist McMillan worked in a commonly available position for low-income populations. She only lived off of what she earned as a waitress and wrote a story about it.

(I know, the idea is inherently full of privilege, but it’s for a greater cause of awareness so I consider this a service. I feel like she acknowledges the layers in that story arc of someone pretending to be poor for a story.)

She told us that after being hit with a problem that cost her money outside of her available budget, she also ended up having to use a credit card.

I think the big thing to realize here is that there is virtually NO padding for someone in this situation. There is no wiggle room for something to go wrong, otherwise it would be a disaster. Life needs to continue flawlessly for the financial numbers to work.

As we know in reality, this is almost never the case. Understanding this, it’s less of a surprise that people end up going to a payday advance when they’re in a pinch.


4. Education

The panelists talked about the reduction of Pell grants and the available money for higher education.

A major hurdle I heard was how hard it was to get the funds to even go to University.

Firstly, low credit scores basically disqualify parents from Parent Plus loans, and if they do get it, they have to pay it off in two years. This adds major pressure to a financial situation already bursting at the seams.

Gipson personifies a common situation she sees:

“We’re back at this point where I’m making minimum wage and I’m trying to make it better for my children. I want them to have a better life than I have. I was able to get the Parent Plus loan, but now I have to pay this loan back, and the rates are insane.”

Just like Parent Plus loans, other student loan options may be available...but on terrible terms.

It perpetuates a cycle of poverty.

Education feels like the way out of poverty for a lot of people, but what if they don't even have access to that?

Education feels like the way out of poverty for a lot of people, but what if they don't even have access to that?

We talked about a lot of things during the panel, but those were the major points.

I noticed a common thread between many of the major issues we covered.


Who gets access to what? What constitutes something as accessible?

Most of the reasons why the cycle of poverty continues is because people lack the access to mobilize their way out of the cycle. Access to public health services, transportation, and education is merely a dream for so many low income communities.

Does it cost more to be poor?


But it's not just a matter of money, it's a matter of time, skill and access.

Find Your True North

  • Have you ever been in the situations described here? What was that like, and how did it make you feel?

  • Feel passionate about giving people access so they can get ahead? Consider volunteering at Matrix.

  • How did the stories and anecdotes affect you emotionally? Ask yourself why you would have an emotional reaction to a situation like this.

  • How does the idea of having no room to make any financial mistakes make you feel? How do you set up your financial life so you can avoid that anxiety?

99 Cent Dreams by Nicholas Buffon

If You're Interested...

There's an exhibit at the MOCAD right now called 99 Cents Or Less. It's going to be there from May 19 to August 6, 2017.

Basically, artists were brought in and given $99 dollars to spend at a Dollar Store. Then they made art out of the materials that were available to them.

I know...I see the story arcs of how this exhibition is a bit of a fetishization of poorness. We can have discourse on that later.

The exhibit is free though, so if you want to check it out, I feel like it's worth it.

From their site:

A major group exhibition of ninety nine artists based in the United States, 99 Cents or Less addresses Detroit’s ongoing economic crisis and its 2013 bankruptcy–the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in the history of the United States. Four years after a federal judge approved Detroit’s bankruptcy-exit plan the city’s financial present and future are still in flux. This exhibition is a reflection on the realities of a city that was once one of the country’s wealthiest and most diverse.

Speaking to Detroit’s place as a global industrial powerhouse by using materials from 99 cent stores, 99 Cents or Less hopes to make the connection between past, present, and future centers of production, and point to ways that artists can address how mass production has changed and will continue to change and evolve. As the consumer’s relationship with their everyday items has changed, so has the application and approach that artists take when incorporating these items in their work.
What it looks like at the entrance of the exhibition. I like the model 99 cent store and the all black everything trays.

What it looks like at the entrance of the exhibition. I like the model 99 cent store and the all black everything trays.