On the Road: Underwater in Detroit

Dismayed by politics and politicians, voters in Detroit sense that some of their economic problems are homegrown

  • Share
  • Read Later
Peter van Agtmael / Magnum for TIME

USA. Rolling Meadows, IL. 2010. The front porch of the home of John and Sally McGraw.

"I think of myself as pretty conservative," Jason Pless, a deputy police chief in one of Detroit's exurbs, is saying. "Politically, financially, every which way. But I guess you'd have to say I'm underwater. We bought our house for $148,000, took a mortgage for $100,000. And I think I might be able to sell it for $80,000 now."

We're at a restaurant in Brighton, Mich., 40 miles (65 km) from the center of Detroit, having brunch. There are 10 of us at the table — a group of cops, firefighters, emergency responders and a few lawyers put together by TIME reader Kevin Gentry, a deputy fire chief and adjunct law professor at Michigan State — and all but one of them think that their mortgages now surpass the value of their homes.

They have stories about friends and neighbors gaming the system. They are angry about the Obama Administration's giving aid to people facing foreclosure while they're playing by the rules and struggling. A lawyer named Carla Testani tells a story about a neighbor who had a brief, scheduled layoff and was able to parlay that into mortgage-rate relief from the government. "It was like she got a raise. She bought her kids a swing set." And Pless, the deputy police chief, is infuriated by his neighbors, some of whom were friends of his, who are just walking away from their mortgages — which means the banks will foreclose on their homes and lower his property's value. "It's immoral," he says. "But where's the payback? I hope the banks hunt them down."

Ten days into my cross-country road trip and I'm not finding much of the fist-shaking, Tea Party anger that you see on television. People are freaked out, though. They're frustrated and anxious. They're not too thrilled with Barack Obama's policies — although even his detractors see him as sincere and trying his best to turn things around — and they're not at all convinced that the Republicans are prepared to offer anything better, but the anti-incumbent, anti-Establishment mood is palpable. They can diagnose the problems, but they don't have any strong ideas about solutions. Most of the people at brunch say the government is spending too much, but when I ask whether they'd rather see the government closing the deficit or spending money to create jobs, most of them say jobs. There are ideological contradictions aplenty, which leads me to conclude that the notion of America as a conservative or moderate or liberal country is a fiction created by those of us who sit on top of Mount Opinion. More than a few voters I've met seem to be conservative, moderate and liberal all at once. Pat Moll, a police officer who doesn't like Obama at all, thinks the government should spend money to "put people to work in real jobs that last."

Even devoted Obama supporters are frustrated with the President. "After he didn't get a single Republican vote on the stimulus package, why did he spend all year trying to get Republican votes for health care?" asks John McGraw, the former president of a small division of a power-tool company that was closed down by its European owners. "He's a smart guy. Didn't he understand what he was facing?"

McGraw — another TIME reader who asked me to come visit him — has been laid off for 17 months. His wife Sally, a clerical worker, has held five jobs in the past two years and was laid off from four of them. "I've sent out maybe 4,000 to 5,000 résumé s, all over the world," McGraw told me. "This is my full-time job. I do it seven days a week. I've got 2,300 rejection letters sitting in my computer; the rest didn't even bother to respond. I understand. I'm 61. They can hire someone 20 years younger than me for less money... But you wonder where this country is going. You wonder how the kids will find jobs and buy houses." Illinois is in a fiscal crisis; its deficit is nearly half the size of its budget, largely because of pension and health obligations to public employees. Taxes keep rising to close that gap. "I could go to work three days a week at Walmart, and my salary would just about cover my tax bill," McGraw says. "With all these jobs going overseas, you wonder how anybody who isn't a genius nuclear physicist is going to find work. I can't believe we're letting this happen to our country."

Introspection seems the order of the day. When you scratch just a bit beneath the surface, people stop lacerating politicians and start talking about American values. "You've got to figure that our parents wouldn't have walked away from a mortgage," Pless says. "I'm not walking away from mine. But people I know well, friends, are taking a hike, and I wonder, What has happened to us as people?"