Letter from Detroit: Where's the Urban President?
President Obama is zipping across the industrial Midwest lately, touting the budding recovery of the auto industry, and for good reason. His $50 billion investment in General Motors and Chrysler pulled them from the brink of collapse, potentially saving millions of jobs. At a GM assembly plant in Detroit last week, he test-drove Chevrolet's new battery-powered Volt (about 10 feet, after getting reluctant approval from the Secret Service) and swiftly pronounced the ride "pretty smooth." The TV cameras rolled. The crowd of autoworkers cheered, right on cue. Just like a campaign rally: Everything was perfect. Except, it's not. Obama, America's first urban president, was visiting his country's poorest and most populous majority-black city. But the urban crisis unraveling outside the auto plants wasn't on the agenda.
Detroit's official unemployment rate is 24%, the highest among major U.S. cities. But officials here believe the actual jobless rate may be 50%, since the official statistics fail to include people who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits or have stopped looking for work. To put this in historical context: a decade ago, Detroit's jobless rate was 6.7% At the height of the Great Depression, in 1933, about one-quarter of Americans were unemployed. Today in Michigan, an estimated 44% of adults lack the fundamental skills, like reading, to qualify for the high-tech jobs officials are desperately trying to attract. An entire population is ill-equipped to participate in the new economy.
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