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Employment in Detroit | The Kerner Report 50 Years Later

This is a chapter from the Kerner Report: 50 Years Later, written collaboratively by 2018 Humanity in Action Fellows in Detroit. 



In 1968, the Kerner Report recognized employment status as a high priority issue which contributed to the cause of the 1967 Rebellion. The report states, “[Employment] not only controls the present for the Negro American but, in a most profound way, it is creating the future as well” which we find to be still true today. The division between the white suburbs and the black city exacerbated the deeply racist housing policies of the time, and we still see the ramifications affecting employment opportunities in both localities. Additionally, the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the U.S. auto industry and fiscal mismanagement drove Detroit to declare bankruptcy in 2013. Ever since then, many stakeholders in Detroit have been working on ensuring inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth, but have been met with obstacles. On the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report of 1968, we  review the current state of employment in Detroit, including what government and community organizations are doing to influence employment and the future of labor in the city.


When discussing employment in Detroit and Wayne County, especially in comparison to its neighboring counties, race is an important factor to consider. Historically, due to numerous racist policies such as school and housing segregation, African Americans had much greater difficulty acquiring and accumulating wealth. Surveys show that Macomb and Oakland Counties are overwhelmingly white counties, 97.6% and 96.8% respectively, and the city of Detroit is almost 80% African-American.2 The unemployment rate in Detroit is 3.5 times higher than in Oakland County, and 3 times higher than in Macomb County.3 Furthermore, residents of Detroit are more than twice as likely to work in service occupations than the residents of Oakland County, while the majority of residents in Oakland and Macomb counties work in management, business, science, and arts occupations. Moreover, median household income in Detroit is $28,099, lower than the Wayne County median of $43,464, and significantly lower than the median incomes in Macomb ($60,143) and Oakland Counties ($71,920)4. However, this is not a new trend. The 1968 Kerner Report recognized a pattern of severe disadvantage for African-Americans in comparison to whites as an important social and economic condition that played a major role in the 1967 rebellion. Fewer African Americans had attended high school and had less years of education as compared to whites, furthermore, they were twice as likely to be unemployed; underemployment also added greatly to the already existing social grievances.6 

Today, we can trace the historical inequalities to the so-called talent gap. To a certain extent, some of the employment issues are due to the disparity between the skills of the labor force in Detroit and the skills required by employers. Almost 22 percent of Detroit adults have not completed high school and find themselves at a poverty rate of 52 percent, whereas the poverty rate for those with a bachelor’s degree is above 12 percent. In regards to educational attainment, the gap between Detroit and Wayne County is not as wide in comparison of Wayne County to Macomb and Oakland Counties. Statistically, 9.3% of Wayne County residents have a graduate or a professional degree (5.9% in Detroit), whereas that number doubles in Oakland County (19.8%).7 Similarly, both in Macomb and Oakland, a higher percentage of residents have a bachelor’s degree than in Wayne County.

Despite being the overwhelming majority in the city, African Americans are currently only employed in 33% of the city's jobs.8 With so many people employed outside of the city, transportation becomes incredibly important. Although strides have been made in public transportation in recent years, there is still room for improvement in order for the transportation system to meet the needs of all residents. Many workers from Detroit are dependent on the current transit system, as 25% of Detroit's households do not have access to a private vehicle.9 Still, with less than 1% of residents in either Macomb or Oakland County using public transportation10, the apparent lack of interest in a regional transit system has led to opposition and resistance towards offering more inclusive access to the Metro Detroit area.


Government, businesses, education systems, and residents are all stakeholders in employment issues. The most important actors however are the labor force participants — the employees and the unemployed. Government policies, especially at state and local levels, play an essential role in ensuring fair and equitable employment practices. As a key stakeholder, the government has initiated certain programs and implemented different initiatives to tackle the issue of unemployment and underemployment.

To address the talent gap, organizations are implementing training initiatives and improved recruitment processes. One example of a government initiative is the City of Detroit's workforce agency, Detroit Employment Solution Corp (DESC), which focuses on connecting job seekers with employers seeking talent. Through partnership with community-based and religious organizations and other foundations, DESC offers training programs to help  prospective employees develop their talents.

Through Skilled Trades Employment Program, the City of Detroit partners up with local unions and their Joint Apprentice Training Committees in order to increase their memberships. Furthermore, the City enforces hiring requirements. Developers and contractors on publicly-funded construction projects in which the City or its affiliated entities participate in with over 3 million dollars are required to hire a workforce that includes 51% of Detroit residents.11 Otherwise, they are required to make a contribution to the Detroit Workforce Development Program which would be then used for job training programs.

To address issues of hiring formerly incarcerated workers, Michigan Department of Corrections offers a program called Vocational Village through which Michigan inmates can get job training. The program provides housing and full days of training and instruction leading to state and nationally-recognized certifications in their trade.

To address the specific needs of localized communities, programs like Fitz Forward (focusing on neighborhood improvements) and Cass Community Social Services (which is a grassroots organization) both work to improve employment opportunities. Fitz Forward is a neighborhood revitalization initiative which seeks to offer opportunities through transforming  urban spaces. For example, they partner with other workforce training and development organizations in Detroit to hire local artists, urban planners, and landscape or construction workers to contribute to the creation of new parks and green spaces. 

Cass Community Social Services is a community-based organization that addresses unemployment through their Green Industries program which offers jobs for people with significant barriers to employment, including adults with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses, physical restrictions, illiterate individuals, or those who have formerly experienced homelessness, war, or prison. Green Industries links employment to sustainability. Some of their initiatives include producing mud mats and planters made of recycled tires, removing more than 30,000 tires from polluting the city; shredding sensitive documents for offices, recycling tons of paper, producing coasters from recycled glass and repurposed wood, and portraying imagery from the graffiti covering the wall near 8 mile and Wyoming in Detroit. Through sales of the repurposed items, Cass employs 85 workers who previously had difficulties finding a job.


Technological development is reshaping the labor market and automation of work will be an important twofold factor in this change. It will bring more efficiency and lower costs to many jobs, ultimately leading to the displacement of those jobs (e.g. drivers, manufacturers, customer care, data analysts among others). Technological advancement will foster entrepreneurship and commerce. For example, new educational organizations offering training in IT skills are helping people respond to market’s demands. However, not many programs yet exist because although the majority of Americans believe that technology will change the workforce, the minority actually believe it will affect their own jobs. At the same time, the digital divide in Detroit is greatly unacknowledged—four in ten people in the city do not have access to broadband Internet at home. In a society where job applications, the news, access to social communities, and educational opportunities can be found online, the digital age has imposed an even deeper divide between those who have Internet and those who do not. In this way, technology reinforces existing social determinants and inequities.

On a larger scale, automation poses a threat to a lot of workers whose jobs could be done is less time for less money. For example, radiologists may be replaced by computers that can read and flag CT scans with higher precision and at a faster pace. In the meantime, radiologists will still need to help program the computers and make the final calls in their diagnoses, but their jobs may on the front line facing automation. New jobs could be created in programming artificial intelligence to do these tasks, or teaching how to use the machines, but eliminating the human factor from the workforce will likely result in greater economic disparities.

One possible approach to the question of how we might anticipate and prepare for the upcoming demands of the technology-oriented job market could be a change beginning with education. Technology, education, and employment are interconnected—both younger and older generations will need to know how to access and handle the digital age. Another possible way to address the disparities is Universal Basic Income (UBI).12 As a form of redistribution of wealth, UBI could provide financial safety in case of job loss.


Because employment does not exist in a vacuum, its prospects depend heavily on the improvement of education, training, transportation, and equitable development in business and public services. In regard to these sectors, here are the improvements that we would like to see in the near future:

Education administrations: offer alternative career pathways. K-12 school administrations should expand their understanding of what it means to be prepared for the job market after high school. Retention and graduation rates are important, but they are not necessarily indicative of readiness in the job market. A resurgence and investment in vocational and technical training may allow students to graduate with practical skills, including mechanical and digital. Alternative pathways to a four year degree may allow students to limit the amount of debt accrued while giving them more practical jobs where the market offers.

Regional Transit Authority: Increase accessibility throughout neighborhoods and suburbs. With over 300,000 people commuting between the city and suburbs for work, access to reliable, affordable transportation is a major factor in Detroiters’ employment. The RTA should continue its fight to create more public transit throughout Detroit and the surrounding suburbs.

New and old businesses: Maintain social equity and sustainability as a pillar for new business models. With a rapidly changing job market, businesses must include social equity and sustainability in their business models; potential impact on their employees and their surrounding communities should be a core value of their business. Economic and social development should work with a community, not just in it, around it, or among it.


On a larger scale, the consequences of unemployment are simultaneously the result and the cause of inequalities, the lack of resources, and sufficient means of living. Historically disparate housing and educational opportunities and therefore employment opportunities ultimately contribute to a cycle of institutionalized poverty and disadvantage. In the near future for, business should be incentivized to hire locally and to implement inclusive price points in which the price of their products/service matches their neighborhood’s income level. In terms of larger scale policy change, a social safety net—universal affordable healthcare, inclusive unemployment assistance, housing security and assistance, child care assistance, better transportation—would alleviate some of the  extreme burdens of poverty.


1. The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. February 1968.

2. American Community Survey, 2016 1 Year.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. February 1968.

6. Gallagher, John, “These Detroiters aren't looking for jobs. Why might surprise you.” Detroit Free Press. June 08, 2018. 

7. American Community Survey, 2016 1 Year.

8. Detroit Future City. “139 Square Miles”. August 2017.

9. American Community Survey, 2016 1 Year.

10. Ibid.

11. The City of Detroit's Department of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity, Executive Order (2016-1).

12. Universal Basic Income (UBI) - an amount of money which covers basic human needs (estimated for a given economic environment) offered each month unconditionally to any member of a given society. 


This chapter drew upon the following resources.

  • Cass Community Social Services. Accessed on July 29, 2018. https://casscommunity.org/.
  • Fitz Forward. Accessed on July 28, 2018. https://www.fitzforwarddetroit.com/
  • Gallagher, John, “These Detroiters aren't looking for jobs. Why might surprise you.” Detroit Free Press. June 08, 2018. https://www.freep.com/story/money/business/john-gallagher/2018/06/08/workforce-participation-detroit/674401002/. 
  • Reisinger, Don. “Four in Ten Detroit Residents Lack Broadband Internet Access.” Fortune, May 23, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/05/23/detroit-broadband-access/.
  • United States Census Bureau. Detroit city, Michigan, July 1, 2017. Accessed July 29, 2018. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/detroitcitymichigan,mi/PST045217. 
  • The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. February 1968.
  •  United States Census 2010.
  • American Community Survey, 2016 1 Year.
  • The City of Detroit's Department of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity, Executive Order (2016-1) https://www.detroitmi.gov/Portals/0/docs/News/EO%202016-1.pdf. 

Humanity in Action sessions:

July 16, 2018
 The Fitzgerald Revitalization Project: Michelle Bolofer, India Solomon, Caitlin Murphy 

July 17, 2018
 Kwame Simmons, Director of Education and Strategist, Hantz Foundation

July 19, 2018 
Rev. Faith Fowler, Executive Director, Cass Community Social Services

  • Jeffrey Brown, Manager, Future of Work & Artificial Intelligence, Bertelsmann Foundation North America 
  • Chioke Mose-Telesford, Deputy Director of Workforce Development for the City of Detroit 
  • Aniela Kuzon, Global Lead, Ford City of Tomorrow Challenge

July 20, 2018

  • Elisabeth Gerber, Professor, University of Michigan; Vice Chair, Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan
  • Laura J. Trudeau (Principal, Trudeau Consulting)
  • Ruth Johnson (nonprofit consultant and social justice advocate)


Universal Basic Income: an amount of money which covers basic human needs (estimated for a given economic environment) offered each month unconditionally to any member of a given society.

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