Detroit: The Road to Bankruptcy Hits Women Hard

I live in Los Angeles now, but I am a native Detroiter–a proud daughter of a great city. So I have watched my hometown’s long, downhill slide with sadness.

Years of political corruption, corporate welfare, apathy, outsourcing, downsizing and relocating finally reached a boiling point, and the city filed for bankruptcy in July. Residents fed up with high taxes, lack of services and deplorable schools abandoned the city for the suburbs, leaving behind a city in ruins.

It’s about to get worse. The Republican majority in the State House and Senate, along with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, swooped in, some say, to plunder and pillage what remains of the once great city.

In March, the governor engineered an executive coup d’état and appointed an emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, to wrest control of the city from its elected officials. In July, Orr decided that there was no alternative but for the city to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The emergency manager law is being challenged by the Detroit NAACP, and there was no word on the decision as I write this.

The announcement to file for bankruptcy came with talk of restructuring Detroit’s $18.5 billion debt by cutting pensions, laying off city employees, selling off the priceless art collection at the venerable Detroit Institute of Arts and paying creditors a fraction of what they’re owed.

All of these proposals are bad news for 21,000 retired city workers, many of whom rely on their pension checks to make ends meet and an estimated 60 percent of whom are women. Women make up 53 percent of all Detroit residents, and 31 percent of those women are heads of households.

The average pension benefit for Detroit retirees is $19,000 per year. That’s not living large, even in the city of Detroit. In addition, because women are generally at the lower end of the pay scale, most women retirees are collecting less than $19,000. Andromedia Bowden, who worked for the city for 22 years, receives $14,400 from her city pension. With that, Social Security and a part-time job, she was doing OK. But when the emergency manager filed for bankruptcy and put pensions on the chopping black, she decided she needed to find a full-time job. “I got another job because I wouldn’t be able to live off a reduced pension and my Social Security. And I get more than some people get,” says Bowden. “I can’t see them cutting a significant amount of the pensions. Police officers’ wives–that’s all they have.”

Detroit police and firefighters don’t contribute to Social Security, and for that reason their pensions may be a little higher, but it’s still not easy street. In addition, survivors’ benefits are generally less than the retiree was receiving. My sister, Patti Unger, is married to Ralph Unger, a retired Detroit police officer. She retired from the state of Michigan and are managing well on their two pensions and her Social Security, which provides Medicare for Ralph (since he wasn’t eligible on his own). But a reduction in his pension would make it more difficult financially for them.

How is it that we can even think about slashing pensions for people who performed their jobs with the assurance their pension was deferred compensation that would be there for them when they were ready?

Over the past few years, public employees have been demonized. Republican-dominated legislatures and statehouses have used the recession as a weapon in their war against the working class, and they’ve taken particular aim at public employee unions.

They have mastered the art of misdirection. They have succeeded in convincing many Americans that teachers, police officers, social workers, firefighters and government workers are the cause of our economic woes–not tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. I’m not unaware of the huge mistakes, calculations and possible crimes that were committed by people making decisions about Detroit’s finances, but it certainly wasn’t the individual city worker who made those decisions or even knew about them. They shouldn’t be punished for the incompetence that led to this crisis. In addition to city officials who made bad deals, the financial wizards who sold Detroit the financial products that made the problem worse should have to accept some of the blame. They certainly shouldn’t be first in line to collect on the debts their faulty financial instruments helped create.

There is also no mention of another alternative to bankruptcy for the city: That would be for suburban Detroit and the state of Michigan to step in. Metropolitan Detroit is segregated racially and economically. Bloomfield Hills, 20 miles outside of Detroit, has the second-highest per-capita income in the state at $104,920, while Detroit’s is $14,717.

Civil servants have been depicted as pigs at the public trough, pampered and spoiled by lavish pensions and benefit programs. Instead of insisting that we all should make decent wages and retire with some security, right-wing politicians and pundits have encouraged Americans who are in precarious economic conditions to direct their ire at public employees, who they’ve been told are making too much money, getting too many benefits and retiring with too much money.

This divide-and-conquer tactic has been effective, and the antipathy toward unions is especially harmful to women. Union membership has been in decline for years, and between 2011 and 2012 the number of union members dropped by 398,000. Women were less than half (46 percent) of union members in 2011 but accounted for 72 percent of the decline.

Union membership is critical for women’s wage equality. Among union members, the typical full-time woman worker has weekly earnings that are 88 percent of the typical man’s. Among workers not represented by unions, this figure is 81 percent, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

The benefits of unions are even higher for women workers in typically low-wage occupations. Unions increase their wages by more than 14 percent, and they are 26 percent more likely to have health insurance and more than 23 percent more likely to be in a pension plan.

The attacks on unions are attacks on women. This doesn’t end with Detroit going into bankruptcy and reducing pension benefits for retirees; Detroit is only one front in the War on Women, the middle class and poor Americans.

The road to bankruptcy for Detroit is just one stop on a crusade to reshape America by eliminating unions, legislating away our right to choose, depriving us of health care, dismantling environmental protections, lowering our wages, suppressing our votes, denying marriage equality, defeating gun control measures and destroying our education system. The same politicians who would bankrupt Detroit are those voting for tax cuts for corporations and wealthy people, denying global climate change, redistributing our wealth to their rich friends and gerrymandering electoral districts to guarantee their stranglehold on state legislatures and control of Congress.

We have to connect the dots. We have to connect those dots for our family, our friends, co-workers and social networks. We can’t let them get away with it. We just can’t let their bankrupt policies drive us all to the poorhouse.

 Photo courtesy of Surrealplaces via Creative Commons 2.0.



Not the singer/songwriter Carole King. Been a feminist for as long as I can remember and committed to reproductive rights even longer.