Detroit—the Motor City, Motown, the 313, Rock City, Hockeytown—the iconic Midwestern city is sadly reeling. The decline of the American auto industry’s domestic production coupled with years of constrained municipal budgets and the challenges of today’s global economy has created the perfect storm in Michigan’s largest city.
As with a blizzard, the faithful residents of Detroit may have seen the storm coming, but there was little they could do but brace for impact and pray for help.
Their prayers have not been answered, and for Detroit’s already struggling population, the aftershock of the city’s debt debacle may be worse than the initial blow. In July, under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 in federal bankruptcy court.
For the residents of the Motor City, the bankruptcy should not be something that destroys lives—particularly those of public employees who loyally served the city for decades and earned pensions that are in danger of being slashed. Without their pensions, retired former public employees would be forced to choose between buying food, clothes and medicine.
Detroit’s public employees are firefighters, police officers, janitors, teachers, librarians and they are depending on the pensions for support as they age. Other critical city services are also on the chopping block, including sewer and water, police, fire and first responder resources and support for the most vulnerable. All could be deeply cut.
It is important to note that Detroit is not a city that gives up. Though residents of Detroit have had little control in the city’s financial failures, they have had everything to do with the city’s successes and need to be a part of any comeback. They cannot be left hung out to dry.
Right now, thankfully, the city is looking like a city moving back towards equilibrium. Private investment in the city is at an all-time high. Budding industries, coupled with a number of collaborative economic development initiatives, are fueling Detroit’s resurgence.
Detroit also boasts a strong faith community made stronger by interfaith cooperation. No one religious community is spared when an entire city is in peril. Inspired by universally held traditions of social justice, most of us in the faith community are dedicated to revitalizing the city for all. That includes protecting those who have worked hard for a secure future from falling into poverty as well as creating the opportunities for others to lift themselves up.
United by our shared commitments to the welfare of all – we cannot be oblivious to the human impact of Detroit’s bankruptcy and urge those making decisions to be fully cognizant of that impact. Detroit’s pensions help ensure Detroit’s future. Without them, Detroit’s road to recovery will be lined with families abandoned by a city they helped to build.
In the past, when disasters have struck communities, our great nation has been quick to jump to their aid. That does not seem to be the case with Detroit. Losing a city so iconic to America, that despite its recent fate has worked toward its own revival would be a real shame.
Gutow serves as president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.