There are many horrific stories to be told about the implosion of Detroit, once the nation’s most prosperous city, today its poorest. There is the story of its corrupt public institutions, its feckless leaders, its poisonous racial politics, its practically nonexistent economy, the riots that have led to its thrice being occupied by federal troops. The most horrific story may be that of the death of its children.
Detroit has the highest child-mortality rate of any American city, exceeding that of many parts of what we used to call the Third World. The rate of death before the age of 18 in Detroit is nearly three times New York City’s, and its infant-mortality rate exceeds that of Botswana. The main cause of premature death among the children of Detroit is premature birth — the second is murder. While the city’s murder rate among adults is nothing to be proud of, more horrifying is the fact that between 30 and 40 children are murdered in Detroit in a typical year. Some of those children are nine-month-olds killed by rifle fire in their beds; some are budding criminals in their late teens — and each of those situations offers its own unique horrors. So dangerous is the city that children are being armed by their parents, which has predictable consequences. “I work in the Wayne County Juvenile Court, and these children are obtaining guns from adults,” children’s-law attorney Lynda White told the Detroit News, which has been conducting an in-depth investigation of how Detroit’s children are dying. “They’re obtaining guns illegally from people who are supposed to be responsible and people who are supposed to protect them. And if that person who has a huge influence in your life is giving you a gun, some of them tend to think it’s okay to carry it. And they’re being told, ‘You need this for your protection, you live in Detroit.’”
Detroit represents nothing less than progressivism in its final stage of decadence: Worried that unionized public-sector workers are looting your city? Detroit is already bankrupt, unable to provide basic services expected of it — half the streetlights don’t work, transit has been reduced, neighborhoods go unpatrolled. Worried that public-sector unions are ruining your schools? Detroit’s were ruined a generation or more ago, the results of which are everywhere to be seen in the city. Worried that Obamacare is going to ruin our health-care markets? General-practice physicians are hard to find in Detroit, and those willing to accept Medicaid — which covers a great swath of Detroit’s population — are rarer still. Worried about the permissive culture? Four out of five of Detroit’s children are born out of wedlock. Worried that government is making it difficult for businesses to thrive? Many people in Detroit have to travel miles to find a grocery store. This is the endgame of welfare economics: What good is Medicaid if there are no doctors? What good are food stamps where there is no food? What good are “free” schools if you’re so afraid to send your children there that you feel it prudent to arm them first?
Detroit is what Democrats do. The last Republican elected mayor of Detroit took office during the Eisenhower administration. The decay of Detroit is not the inevitable outcome of the decline of the automotive industry: The automotive industry is thriving in the United States — but not in Detroit. It isn’t white flight: The black middle class has left Detroit as fast as it can. The model of Detroit politics is startlingly familiar in its fundamentals, distinguished only by its degree of advancement: Advance the interests of public-sector unions and politically connected business cronies, expand the relative size of the public sector remorselessly — and when opposed, cry “Racism!” When people vote with their feet, cry “Racism!” When the budget just won’t balance, cry “Racism!” Never mind that the current mayor of Detroit is the first non–African American to hold that job since the 1970s, or that, as one Detroit News columnist put it, “black nationalism . . . is now the dominant ideology of the [city] council” — somewhere, there must be a somebody else to blame, preferably: aged, portly, white, male, and Republican. No less a fool than Ed Schultz blamed the straits of this exemplar of Democratic single-party rule on “a lot of Republican policies.” Melissa Harris-Perry, “America’s leading public intellectual,” blames Detroit’s problems on its conservatism and small government, oblivious to the fact that Detroit maintains twice as many city employees per resident as do larger cities such as Fort Worth and Indianapolis, and three times as many as liberal San Jose.
The result of all that municipal “investment”? For children newborn through age 18, Detroit sees 120 deaths per 100,000 each year — a rate 26 percent higher than second-place child-killer Philadelphia. That’s nearly two and a half times the rate in Los Angeles, which isn’t exactly a leafy suburban paradise. Every time our progressive friends come to us with another idea for transferring wealth from the productive economy to them and their friends, they scold us: “Think of the children!” But those who resist their efforts to do to the country at large what they have done to Detroit are thinking of the children.
There used to be a popular bumper sticker reading, “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” War is hell, Detroit merely hellish. The difference is, we don’t send children off to war.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving reporter for National Review.