More on Detroit’s Jobs Imbalance

Scene from downtown Birmingham, MI.  Source:

So last week I wrote about Detroit’s “Walking Man” James Robertson, who gained a lot of local notoriety for detailing his extreme commute to his low-wage manufacturing job in the suburbs.  Many people have used the story to draw lessons on many Detroit problems, like poor transit, the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs, even the local high cost of auto insurance that may prevent low-income people from purchasing cars.  However, those lessons didn’t quite capture the essence of the issue to me.  Last week I tried to lay the groundwork for suggesting that Detroit suffers from a severe jobs imbalance relative to its suburbs, and that imbalance has played a fundamental role in in its economic collapse.  I’ve thought about it some more and would like to see if this makes sense.

Here’s my working theory.  The last 40-50 years for America’s metro areas has been characterized as a period where there’s been substantial shifts in the makeup and composition of jobs within them.  Broadly speaking, middle-income and low-income jobs have migrated from large Northeastern and Midwestern cities to the South and West; manufacturing jobs have largely traveled the same path and continued to move out of the country as well.  Southern and Western “Sun Belt” metros have benefited from the new riches and have economic influence that they’ve never enjoyed before.  Northeastern and Midwestern “Rust Belt” metros have had to adapt to a new slow job growth environment.  Some successfully navigated the transition with a greater reliance on higher-paying jobs in growing sectors where the metro already had a foothold (like New York with finance, Boston with education and consulting, DC with government contracting), while others tried, and failed, to hold onto whatever they previously had.  Detroit was and is in this group, but so are other metros like Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, and others.

I think there’s general agreement among urbanists on the above points.  Here’s where the break begins to appear between Detroit and other Rust Belt metros.  In the other metros, the new slow job growth environment more or less equally impacted all parts of their respective regions — jobs stagnated or declined nearly across the board, city and suburbs, and the economic pain and sense of loss was fairly static across the region.  Of course, there was some variation because this was a period where the suburban advantage over cities was pronounced, and brought new development to some suburban areas that masqueraded as growth.  But Detroit, as in so many other things I’ve examined about it, differs from other Rust Belt metros.  Its suburbs continued to steadily grow and prosper even as its core continued its descent  Detroit’s job loss to the suburbs was particularly acute, imbalanced and partly created the conditions that led to its bankruptcy and stories like Robertson’s extreme suburban commute.

In essence, Detroit is where the “Favored Quarter” theory ran amok.

There is indeed a part of the Detroit metro area where there was an attempt to, I believe, create a new central business district for the region, outside of Detroit — southeast Oakland County.   Taken together, the 19 suburban communities in the far southeast corner of the county, just north of Detroit’s city limits, have about 427,000 residents within 143 square miles, an area approximately the size of Detroit itself (which, by the way, has about 700,000 residents now).  Anchored by its two largest communities, Troy (81,000) and Southfield (72,000) Southeast Oakland has just under ten percent of the residents within the metro area.  However, the area holds nearly twenty percent of all the region’s jobs:

I had some formatting problems, but the source is the U.S. Census’ Longitudinal Household-Employment Dynamics dataset.

On a per household basis, southeastern Oakland County is the metro area’s leader in providing jobs.  The subarea nearly doubles the number of jobs within its boundaries as the region overall (1.80 versus 0.99), overshadowing both Detroit and its host county (Wayne).  Southeastern Oakland is led by Southfield and Troy, which have nearly 100,000 and 90,000 jobs, respectively.  Southfield has 3.15 jobs per household; Troy, 2.94.

Here’s how southeastern Oakland County’s job centers look:

A view of Big Beaver Road in Troy, MI.  Source:

Fireworks above the Southfield Town Center in Southfield, MI.  Source:

Troy and Southfield both have recognizable office centers, but they are also the location of many small and midsize manufacturers who serve as suppliers for the Big Three automakers and other industrial users.

I think Detroit’s suburban job growth has enabled development in the suburbs that otherwise would’ve taken place in the city.  As a result, you have communities like Birmingham:


Or Royal Oak:


Or Ferndale:


exhibiting the kind of walkable urbanism in their suburban downtowns that typically one sees taking place in city neighborhoods in other cities around the country.

Here’s a visualization I think can help explain how the jobs imbalance plays out and its impact on Detroit.  First, this is how I envision job growth occurring in Sun Belt metros over the last 40+ years, with a split between those in the city and suburbs:

That would be broad job growth distributed rather evenly throughout the metro area, but having the greatest impact in the suburbs.  This is how I would envision the same process happening in Rust Belt metros:

Here, there’s less job growth overall, more of it concentrated in the suburbs, and a growing divergence between them.  But here’s what I think likely happened in metro Detroit:

It’s a rather toxic brew for the city, really.  Stagnant growth overall for the region, with most of it captured in the suburbs.  The job loss in the city itself is steep and dramatic.

I must stress that the above charts are estimates at what I think may have happened in metro Detroit over the last 40+ years.  At this point I’m uncertain whether the development of edge cities in the Detroit metro area is any different than in any other metro nationwide; that would require more research.  However, if there is any truth to this theory, it would do a great deal to explain some of Detroit’s differences with other Rust Belt metros.

One thought on “More on Detroit’s Jobs Imbalance

  1. Interesting. I would argue with your characterization of Milwaukee as a metro area that has tried and failed to hold on to its high paying jobs, but that's a topic for another day. A few observations related to Milwaukee vs Detroit. There seems to be a much more profound city-suburb split in Detroit. In the Milwaukee metro area, the suburban communities within Milwaukee County are much more integrated with Milwaukee. The bus system (run by Milwaukee County) appears to be a big differentiator vs Detroit, as it is relatively easy, for example, for Milwaukee residents to access the major job centers that exist in Glendale or Wauwatosa. The problem for city residents without a car is accessing more distant job centers outside of Milwaukee County.


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