Rows upon rows of abandoned houses, buildings and factories. More than one-third of the adult population reads below a third grade level. An average of more than 2,337 crimes per every 100,000 people. And unemployment rates reaching up to 29.6 percent in July 2009.

It’s a heartbreaking place to visit. You drive past boarded-up house after boarded-up house. Areas with no grocery stores in sight — yes, that’s what a food desert looks like. Vacant lots, factories — you name it. It’s the arson and murder capital of the country.

This is all less than an hour away — in Flint, Mich.

When General Motors was at its peak, they employed 80,000 people in Flint. Today, about 7,000. It’s the story of the quintessential dying manufacturing city. The entire town functioned around Buick City. Seeing the shut doors of the manufacturing plant today, it’s hard not to feel helpless.

There are many misconceptions that are perpetuated about poverty. There are those who say a large part of the country is “dependent;” those who claim that “poor people” just need to work harder, that “poor people deserve to be poor.”

No one deserves to live in poverty.

It’s easy to pass judgment on a dire situation that you’re removed from. It’s easy to say people in these cities should just work harder, that they should take ownership over their lives. They should go to college or diversify their skill set. That somehow it’s their fault.

But more often than not, the reality is quite different. And it’s a reality that doesn’t sink in until you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

Not everyone has the luxury to pursue his or her own interests. Not everyone has the resources or the opportunity. Sometimes working as hard as you possibly can still isn’t good enough. And when day-to-day survival is a battle, there’s no time to prepare for the future. There’s a different dominant narrative at play in Flint — one that most of us can’t even begin to understand.

Back in the day, the majority of the blue-collar population in Flint made a living from the GM plant. Generations of people grew up being told that GM would take care of them. That if they were good on their feet, clocked in on time and did what they were told, they’d be able to enjoy a comfortable life. They were told to keep their heads down, work hard and not ask questions. They were discouraged from thinking critically or pursuing a life beyond the plant.

To this day that mentality persists. People in Flint are hanging on because they’ve been told to hang on. They believe this is just another rough patch. That one day, manufacturing will come back and it’ll be okay.

In the rush to industrialize, we completely disregarded human capital. There was a time when it didn’t matter what education level people had. We simply needed those who had the skills to put things together and the willingness to work in the assembly lines. In fact, we didn’t want these people to get a higher education — we wanted an unskilled workforce. We created the false belief that those jobs would be around forever.

Then, the jobs got up and left for another country.

Now, we blame these same people for not “working hard enough,” for not “adjusting to the times.” We created the situation. And now we’re leaving them to fix it on their own.

And when I say, “we,” yes, I mean all of us.

We all acknowledge how bad the circumstances are. We all mourn over the state of the automotive industry and espouse political opinions about outsourcing and American global competitiveness. Of course, we do this from the safety of our suburban homes and secure jobs. We talk about these cities and how bad they are, but at the end of the day we continue on with our lives. Or worse, we distance ourselves — we joke about the dangers of Detroit or Flint; we talk about getting out of Michigan. We’re not living it, and even we don’t think there’s hope.

So, yes, things are bad. But, at some level, is it really the fault of the people? Or is the fault our own as we stand by and allow this to happen?

Not all of you are going to get up and drive to Flint to help out as soon as you finish reading. It’s okay — I don’t expect you to. The intent isn’t to guilt you into doing something, but to show you the reality of the issue in the hopes that it just might inspire a little bit of empathy and compassion.

We might not all be able to go make a difference, but the least we can do is support those who are trying. We can stop insulting these cities. We can stop making jokes about the crime rate in Flint or the gangs of Detroit. We can stop distancing ourselves from these problems. No, this isn’t a “Detroit” thing or a “Flint” thing. They aren’t outcast cities that must be avoided at all costs. Statements like these make it that much harder for those who are working day and night to turn the cities around. We can stop disowning the cities and the people — for better or for worse, they’re ours.

Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate how we think about these struggling cities. There are a lot of problems, and, quite honestly, it’s hard to know where to start. But the spirit of the people is still amazing. It’s heartwarming to see people who haven’t given up — people who continue to take on the problems in the hopes that they’ll be able to make it a little better. Flint is still a city of fighters. And the strength and spirit of the people remains unmatched.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.

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