The Old Lessons of Detroit

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Just days ago Detroit, arguably America’s most distressed urban area, made the largest declaration of insolvency by any U.S. municipality ever. Given the city’s unique role in American economic and cultural history, many people—from national leaders to concerned citizens—have wondered whether its predicament portends anything larger for the nation as a whole. The answer: It likely does not.

The truth is that the challenges faced by Detroit have been common to the majority of America’s biggest cities for the last five decades. Distressingly, though not surprisingly, they just happened to join together with a unique and dogged fury in America’s motor city, and the citizens there are paying the price.

Rather than focus on esoteric questions of what Detroit’s bankruptcy means for bondholders on Wall Street, urgent energy needs to be devoted to the 700,000 mostly black, mostly poor Americans who remain there with nowhere else to go. This includes the 21,000 city pensioners who receive $19,000 as part of a contract they made with the city decades ago. 

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