Detroit’s Dust Bowl

Tractor swamped by Dust Bowl

by nkronos on April 7, 2011

The 2010 census reveals a human migration that is worse in significant ways than the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s and Great Depression. Immortalized in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and songs like “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” by Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl encapsulated the overall trend of the American way of life from a rural, farm-based economy to urban industry.

In the decade 1930 to 1940, perhaps as many as 2.5 million Americans relocated from homesteads in the Great Plains to California and other states. Because of the New Deal’s funnelling of federal funds into artistic and creative endeavors like photojournalism, the historical record is replete with photographs and interviews of the dislocation’s effects. A similar but less well documented relocation has been happening in America over the last decade that the census shows to be much greater than previously thought. It is the movement of Americans from the big cities of the Great Lakes Midwest–particularly Detroit and Chicago.

Detroit alone has lost 25 percent of its population in the last 10 years. It has less than half the population it had in 1950 and is now the same size as when Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory began manufacturing the Model T.

Regardless of the competency of Detroit’s government–or the lack thereof–the shrinking population and tax base make supporting the infrastructure of the city impossible. Detroit schools are hopelessly bankrupt. Likewise, photographic essays of the city reveal a post-nuclear-holocaust-style landscape. (You need to look at those photos just to get an idea of what a beautiful and prosperous city Detroit once was.)

Chicago’s population, too, peaked in the 1950 census and has receded to the same level as when, fresh from Brooklyn, a 21-year-old thug named Al Capone first strolled its streets.

Both cities have lost almost an entire century’s worth of expansion, with Detroit losing a resident approximately every 22 minutes.

Coupled with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, the other major American population movement–one that fueled the growth of cities like Detroit and Chicago–was the relocation of black Americans from the South to the North. And ironically, one of the main drivers of population loss for both cities now is the reversal of that trend, as blacks depart the cold, high-unemployment Midwest for warm Southern places like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Houston. White flight to the suburbs continues too, although in other cities–like Washington, DC–whites have actually begun moving back into the city core.

The growth in suburban population helped Illinois as a state to eke out a small increase in population over the last decade, but not so Michigan. Detroit’s decline took down the entire state.

As with the Dust Bowl, the residents are not relocating purely from choice but are escaping economic ruin. Property values in Detroit have collapsed, with the median home price dropping to $7,500 compared to $62,000 only 10 years ago. And as with the Dust Bowl, the shifting of people out of the cities signifies a transformation of the United States as a whole–its loss of industrial super power status.

Consider that China now manufactures almost half the world’s steel and about 10 times what the one-time world leader United States does. In fact, China now produces more steel per year than the entire world did in 1995. Moreover, China consumes almost all the steel it produces (96 percent), which means it is also producing goods made from steel equal to the entire world’s output in 1995 and almost half of all global steel goods today. China’s steel production is growing, America’s is declining, and the future is not going to get any easier for America’s steel/rust belt.

The shrinking of our manufacturing base and cities has been a well-known trend since the 1970s. What is surprising is the apparent acceleration revealed by the new census. Does it matter? I think so, and I also think those who take comfort in the notion that in the future the United States will out-compete its rival through superior technology are ignoring trends there as well. The BBC reports China will “overtake the US in science” in just two years.

The metric the BBC uses–published research papers–is problematic, but nonetheless it is unlikely it is meaningless either. Given China’s massive advantage in population and industrial output, the US would have to maintain a many times advantage in technology to stake any claim to world’s most important economy. The Chinese may not be about to pass us outright in technical prowess, but copying is always easier than innovating, so it is unrealistic to believe a modern state can maintain a magnitude advantage over another through “intellectual property” for very long.

Consequently, industries and urban infrastructure like Detroit face continued brutalization by 21st century economic forces unless they evolve better ways of competing to changing circumstances. And should they do so, the marketplace is only going to get tougher even so. Swathes of the US can expect real declines in relative standards of living as global American pre-eminence recedes. We are almost certainly and inevitably on this path, but the question remains of how well we manage it.

How our leadership spends its time and the ambivalent attitude of our citizenry warrant pessimism.

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