FLINT, Mich. – It was a city that was integral to the birth of the auto industry. It fell quicker and harder than any other Midwestern city. It was the subject of an award-winning documentary and is the city often mentioned alongside Detroit, St. Louis, and Gary, Indiana as one of the worst places to live in the United States.
Over the last 25 years, life in Flint — the predominantly black industrial hub 75 miles north of Detroit — is a struggle to say the least. The city was the original home of General Motors, and was once thriving as Michigan’s second-largest city with nearly 200,000 people.
In 2011, the numbers bear a startling story. As of 2009, 36.2 percent of Flint’s 102,000 residents were living below the poverty level, and nearly 20 percent were at an income level that was 50 percent below poverty level.
By contrast, Michigan’s poverty rate was at 16.2 percent with 7.4 percent at the below 50 percent level. Blacks make up 18.4 percent of those living in poverty, which amounts to nearly 23,000 Flint residents. The city first truly fell upon hard times during the 1980s and the “Great Recession” further compounded matters in the last 15 years.
“Growing up, for me, it was a wonderful place to grow up,” said Lynntoia Webster, 32, a Flint native currently living in the Detroit suburb of Novi. “I think I saw a lot of changes by the time I was in the ninth and 10th grade. That’s when things started to change.
“I could see our economy was changing. People in my family were getting laid off from the auto industry, and that’s when it became not such a great place to live, in my opinion.”
In the mid-1980s, General Motors — at a time when the company was experiencing record profits — laid off 30,000 autoworkers in Flint, eventually 80,000 in all, and shut down several factories. The jobs went to cheaper labor in Mexico. The layoffs were the death knell for the city’s working class factory roots and set the stunning decline in motion.
“Now, it is definitely more violence and less schools,” said Vi’nessa Webster, 31, an operations coordinator at Michigan State University and Lynntoia’s younger sister. “You see parents moving out of the city, or out of the state as a whole. You also see the kids going to charter schools instead of the inner-city schools, the few that we have remaining.
“More likely, if someone isn’t educated or doesn’t further their education, you’re stuck in the city and you want to get into a hustle, selling drugs, hanging out, drinking, or trying to find the next party. It’s pretty much a city where if you are not keeping yourself active, either in church or just moving, it’s not the place to just sit and just wait for something to come your way.”
Education has long played a role in whether people end up in poverty. Both Websters graduated from Flint Southwestern Academy, and later Michigan State. Many in Flint have not been as fortunate.
Nearly 53 percent of children in Flint live in poverty. The poverty rate of those who did not graduate high school (47.4 percent) is nearly double that of those who did (24 percent).
Flint, like Detroit, has had to close a number of schools in the last few years. In the last two years, they have closed seven elementary schools, and one high school (Flint Central High School).
“It’s sad that if you didn’t further your education or you’re not in the automotive industry, you’re kind of stuck,” Lynntoia said. “It’s sad to see when people don’t go to school and don’t have connections, it’s a city for teaching or working in a plant. I feel like you are jamming all these kids into one school and costing them an education”
“They had a program (in Michigan) called ‘No Worker Left Behind’ that gave people lots of opportunities to go to school and better themselves,” said Mary Watson, a pharmaceutical technician and Flint native. “However, some of those people were in line to get that funding and it stopped.
“Then you had some people who took advantage of that system and only did it for the money and were even getting the grades.”
One key issue that comes with poverty issues is housing. Michigan was one of the states heaviest hit by home foreclosures when the housing market crashed. People who are under water with their mortgages can file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. This could potentially give someone three to five years to pay off their debt.
This is part four in a Grio series on the U.S. economy, as seen in several U.S. cities.Complicating matters further, on Sept. 6., Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that limits the amount of time a person can spend on state assistance to four years. This means that as of Oct. 1, 11,000 households will lose their $500-a-month benefit. This will not make a difficult situation any better for Flint.
“Things will likely get worse,” said LaToya Larkin, an attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Michigan. The organization serves Genesee County and assists people in filing for Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 in order to keep their homes.
“We provide our services for free if you’re low income, and a lot of our clients are on some kind of assistance whether it’s state or federal assistance such as Social Security. If they’re losing their state assistance because of the four-year limit, then they obviously won’t be able to make the payments on their debts.”
Recipients who lose their cash benefits will remain eligible for food assistance, Medicaid, childcare, and emergency services. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm originally signed the benefit limit into law in 2006. The difference then was that caseworkers had leeway to authorize exemptions.
“It’s difficult when we have to turn people away,” Larkin said. “Sometimes it comes down to whether we’re going to a bankruptcy for them, when realistically, they can’t afford to keep the house. We can’t provide assistance for everybody.”
“Without assistance, and not that it’s the greatest thing in the world, but people (in Flint) would not be able to survive at all without,” Lynntoia Webster said. “It’s almost a must. There is a strong need for it in our city.”
Snyder’s plan to cut off assistance could lead to another problem: an increase in violent crime. Flint, a city with a population of barely 100,000, had 2,400 violent crimes in 2010, according to numbers from the FBI.
That is the highest number per capita of any U.S. city with a population of over 100,000. Flint finished in front of Detroit, St. Louis, and Memphis.
“I can see it getting worse (after Oct. 1),” Watson said. “You’re going to get that mentality of ‘I gotta do this to eat.’ Survival mode will kick in and it could lead to more violence. People aren’t going to have those funds to get by. Four years is enough time to try to get yourself together but it’s easier said than done.”
Much like Detroit, Flint is plagued with misconceptions about the crime, violence, and blight. In Roger & Me, Michael Moore – who grew up just outside of Flint in Davison – interviewed a woman who sold rabbits as pets and for meat. While that may not be the reality in the city, a lot of things remain true.
“I know co-workers in Lansing that’ll leave their car doors unlocked,” Vi’nessa Webster said.” Coming from Flint, you know to protect yourself and be aware at all times.”
“Flint is not as bad as it seems,” Watson said. “If you are selling drugs and you’re into the dope game, and you live by that, then you’re going to deal with the repercussions of that.”
“When I was in school, we stayed in school. I had extracurricular activities, and we came home. We weren’t out causing trouble.”
Perception, despite the harsh realities in Flint, is not completely reality. The city has taken steps to clean up its image and make changes.
“I’m not afraid when I’m at home,” Lynntoia said. “When I say I’m from Flint, people say ‘you don’t look like you’re from Flint’ and that offends me. I hear about the crime that happens, but I never felt I had to live it or witness it.”
Flint has made efforts to change its image and spruce up its downtown. The city has begun to rid itself of the scads of abandoned homes that dot the landscape. The University of Michigan-Flint recently opened its first dorm downtown, and the vacant Durant Hotel has been renovated to make way for more commercial space and apartments.
“They only boast about the negative things that go on here like it’s the worst place in the world,” Watson said. “We’re more than just violence and poverty in Flint. It depends on who raised you and what your upbringing was. There are actually good people here.”
With an uncertain future, Flint could well be a case study in how an American city can recover from essentially hitting rock bottom. For Flint natives and current residents, they still hold out hope and remain connected regardless of the situation.
“There’s like an unspoken bond, it’s kind of hard to explain,” Lynntoia said. “I think as a community, if there’s a way we can get more funding for more jobs and after-school activities, I can see it becoming a thriving city again, just to show that there are more options besides the auto industry.
“It’s time to move on and move forward and show that there are other options.”