Census figures show drop in Detroit poverty rate

Fewer people are living in poverty in Detroit, although the former car and manufacturing giant still has the highest rate among the nation's 20 largest cities, according to updated census estimates.

Detroit's 2016 poverty rate of 35.7 percent was down from nearly 40 percent the year before, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday. Residents also are making more money. Census estimates show Detroit's 2016 median household income of just over $28,000 topped the nearly $26,000 in 2015.

Those figures are good news for Motown, which continues to rebound from the Great Recession and the city's 2014 exit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

A number of tech-based companies have moved operations and employees into Detroit's resurgent downtown over the past few years. Hundreds of other jobs have been created by manufacturing firms taking root across the city's 139 square miles (360 sq. kilometers).

"Nearly 20,000 (more) Detroiters are working today than four years ago," Mayor Mike Duggan said Thursday. "We've been successful in bringing jobs and businesses back. We've expanded our job training programs. We have a long way to go."

"The median income is still too low," Duggan added. "The poverty rate is still too high ... but a 4-percent drop in one year is significant."

Cleveland has the second-highest poverty rate among big cities at 35 percent, up from 34.7 percent in 2015. Philadelphia was third at 25.7 percent, compared with 25.8 percent the year before.

The poverty threshold for a family of four is $24,563. The national poverty rate was 14 percent last year, a drop of less than 1 percent.

"The research confirms over and over that the single most important thing to drive down poverty is to drive up employment," said Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "It's been a long, slow recovery from the downturn for Detroit. I think these numbers suggest it's begun to pick up the pace."

Detroit's poverty rate climbed to 42.3 percent in 2012. The median household income was $28,730 in 2008 and dipped to $25,980 two years ago.

"We're kind of over that hump to an extent," said Mark Treskon, a research associate in the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center in Washington.

At the same time, there could be "multiple reasons why the poverty rate is going down and income is going up," Treskon said. "Poor people could be leaving the city. Increasing incomes could be because of the people coming in."

More than 250 development projects have been completed, are under construction or are in planning across the city, Duggan's office said.

The city also has an initiative that provides free training and job placement help in information technology, skilled trades, manufacturing and other fields and a $10 million investment in a center to train 300 students and 300 adults each year in skilled and construction trades.

The census numbers also mean "that more people (in Detroit) are making enough to get by," said Peter Ruark, an analyst with the Michigan League for Public Policy, which advocates for the poor. "They don't need as much support from governmental services. Lower levels of poverty tend to help kids perform better in school, means reduced levels of crime. It's a net benefit to everybody."