Ryan Roose: Michigan is struggling as much as it is flourishing

Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - 6:27pm

A Thrillist article from more than a year ago claiming that Michigan is the best state has reemerged and is being shared quite a bit on Facebook. The justification centers on tourism, boasting the rising brewing industry, the seemingly endless shorelines and the beauty of the Upper Peninsula. The article even guides readers unfamiliar with Michigan to “listen to the dulcet tones of Michigan tourism pitchman Tim Allen.”

As important as tourism is to the state of Michigan, I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate Michigan exclusively on its tourist attractions. Seeing such positive attitudes toward the state brings me joy. But I worry that by focusing on the positive aspects of Michigan, we will forget the negative aspects that cripple the lives of many poor communities. Michigan’s setbacks need to remain at the forefront of the discussion until we can begin to correct them.

We can’t overlook that Detroit and Flint both fall in the top three most dangerous cities in America. While parts of Detroit still carry the city’s rich history, and Midtown and Downtown continue to grow and develop, the school district and neighborhoods in the city are still falling apart. The city’s unemployment rate is still nearly 10 percent, more than double the statewide and national rates of 4.7 percent.

To make matters worse, Metro Detroit has the highest concentrated poverty rate of the top 25 metro areas in the country. The term “working poor” applies especially well to the area, as many of the impoverished people have jobs.

Urban poverty isn’t the only problem Michigan faces, as rural poverty is also a serious ailment plaguing the state. Eleven of the poorest counties in the state of Michigan are rural. Often referred to as the hidden poor, rural communities with high poverty rates often go unnoticed mainly because of their isolation from metropolises. Additionally, these rural communities are often the places suburbanites build their summer homes, pushing poor populations further into the shadows of beautiful lake houses and cabins.

Spending most of their time in Ann Arbor, I think many Michigan students, through no fault of their own, become blind to the economic struggles many residents in Michigan face. When we venture to Detroit, we visit downtown and take the expressway back to Ann Arbor. We see what tourists see when they visit Detroit: the bustling, gentrified areas of downtown where abandoned houses and crumbling schools are out of sight. We often miss the bigger picture, and consequently struggle to grasp the legitimate concerns that face the city and many parts of the state.

As a lifelong resident of the state of Michigan, I love the state I call home. I can’t wait to visit the microbreweries in my hometown when I turn 21. I love heading downtown to watch a Red Wings game. I can’t complain about the miles of sandy beaches that guard the outside of both peninsulas, either.

However, the aforementioned features are, as the Thrillist article indicates, major tourist attractions. Though tourism is a huge part of Michigan life, it is not the main part. Michigan's endless shorline is not a valid excuse to ignore the economic problems that plague rural and urban regions of the state.

Perhaps these problems will be fixed over time, but, until they are, Michigan will remain home to two vastly different realities: one where craft beers, endless beaches and majestic wildlife are the main focus, and another reality where poverty and lack of economic growth are the dominating features. Celebrating Michigan’s vibrant tourism culture is understandable, but even in the midst of our celebration, we cannot overlook the significant setbacks many communities face. We may not have immediate solutions to these problems, and that is fine. But, until progress is made, the economic struggles that hurt poor communities cannot escape our evaluations of the state. 

Ryan Roose can be reached at rooserj@umich.edu.