* Flint, Michigan

  • *

Flint, Michigan, which has been led exclusively by Democrat mayors since 1974, was once a prosperous city with a booming automobile industry that provided many thousands of locals with steady jobs and good pay. Most famously, General Motors—founded in Flint in January 1908—became a veritable American institution unto itself. And during World War II, Flint’s manufacturing facilities were vital to the U.S. production of tanks and other war machines.

In the mid-twentieth century—the Fifties and Sixties were its golden age—Flint continued to flourish economically. In the Fifties, its native GM captured a remarkable 50% of the domestic automobile market and became the first corporation ever to earn $1 billion in a single year. When the company produced its 50-millionth car in 1954, some 100,000 people jammed downtown Flint for a grand, jubilant parade celebrating the milestone. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The gold-colored, gold-plated 1955 Chevrolet was paraded along Saginaw Street like a holy icon, trailed by marching bands from Notre Dame and the University of Michigan.” During that same general time period, a large network of new roads, bridges, and highways were built in and around the bustling city of Flint.

Flint showed some early signs of economic slippage in the Seventies, but as late as 1978, GM’s facilities there still employed no fewer than 80,000 people. The city’s fortunes began to take a dramatic downward turn in the 1980s, however, when, due in large measure to the high cost of unionized labor, General Motors—nearly all of whose employees were members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union—laid off thousands of Flint-based employees and began establishing new factories in Mexico.

It is highly noteworthy that the UAW’s leadership had long supported the Democratic Party and its major initiatives, including President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. As early as March 1948, Gus Scholle of the Michigan Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)—of which the UAW was a part —had successfully engineered the approval of a formal resolution stating that “the best way of supporting liberalism within the Democratic party … is to join the Democratic Party.” Scholle’s intent, however, was not merely to have his union federation join the party as it existed, but to move the party significantly to the left—“to remold the Democratic Party into a real liberal and progressive” entity that could help remedy the “gross inequity in distribution of income.” Toward that end, the CIO exhorted its members “to become active precinct, ward, county, and congressional district workers, and to attempt to become delegates to Democratic conventions.”

Just as the Democratic Party routinely promised its targeted voting blocs—women, minorities, low-wage workers, the poor—taxpayer-funded benefits that were so costly as to be unsustainable, the UAW and its Democrat leaders likewise promised (and negotiated) employer-provided benefits for its members that were entirely unsustainable due to their crippling costs. According to American Enterprise Institute’s Director of Economic Policy Studies, Kevin Hassett, GM’s pro-Democrat union bosses “successfully negotiated sweetheart packages that destroyed GM’s competitiveness.” As a result of such packages:

  • labor costs [salary plus benefits] for a typical UAW worker at a GM plant dwarfed those of workers at non-unionized plants;
  • surplus workers, rather than getting laid off, would continue to receive almost their full salaries plus benefits while the company waited to reassign them; and
  • union workers (sometimes younger than 50) could retire with full pensions and healthcare benefits after just thirty years on the job.

These policies, because they effectively promised the sun and the moon to their beneficiaries, added tremendously to the retail cost of each vehicle that GM produced, and in many cases the company actually lost money on each and every sale. “What the UAW has done,” the Mises Institute once observed, “… is bring a once-great company to its knees. It has done this by a process of forcing one obligation after another upon the company, while at the same time, through its work rules, featherbedding practices, hostility to labor-saving advances, and outlandish pay scales, doing practically everything in its power to make it impossible for the company to meet those obligations.”

Such was the path that led to the 1980s-era crisis in Flint, where GM was in dire financial straits. Recognizing the gravity of this situation, the UAW agreed, out of necessity, to a series of significant concessions designed to help GM rebound financially. The union’s concessions included such measures as wage cuts, pay freezes, and the elimination of some jobs.

But by the late 1990s, reports History.com, “years of improved profits had helped the UAW gain back the ground it had lost with those concessions, and relations between labor and management had subsequently become more adversarial again.” Numerous worker strikes followed, including an infamous 54-day work stoppage at GM’s Flint facilities—costing the company at least $2 billion and effectively stalling its operations nationwide. All these things contributed heavily not only to the demise of GM, but also to the decline of Flint.

Throughout this period, Flint’s Democratic political leaders showed themselves to be incapable of promoting free-market principles or a business-friendly climate that might have jump-started the local economy. Instead they tended to look toward the federal and state governments to financially prop up their foundering city. During Mayor Woodrow Stanley’s 11 years in office (1991-2002), for instance, he helped secure a $2.9 million federal enterprise community grant for a 10-square-mile zone within the city. He also depended on federal and state financing for the construction of several new housing developments; state funds to finance the establishment of economic development zones in Flint; and public funds for the expansion of the University of Michigan-Flint and the creation of a new Job Corps center.

Through it all, the UAW continued to support Democratic Party politics. Since 1990, more than 99% of the union’s expenditures on political campaigns and candidates have gone to Democrats.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Flint’s unemployment and poverty rates escalated at an alarming rate, and by 2006 only 8,000 GM employees remained in the city. The city was devastated economically. Today its per capita income is $13,556 (less than half the national average); its median household income is $23,830 (55% below the national median); and its poverty rate is 40.6%, nearly triple the U.S. average. Over the past nine years, Flint’s unemployment rate has consistently ranged between double and triple the national average.

Another of Flint’s most disastrous trends in recent years has been its soaring crime rate, which currently stands at 5.9 times the national average. This figure includes homicides (which occur in Flint at a rate of 10.8 times the national average), rapes (3 times the national average), robberies (5.2 times the national average), and assaults (6.7 times the national average). A 2012 Wall Street Journal analysis of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports identified Flint as the most dangerous of all U.S. cities with a population of 100,000 or more. To provide some perspective, the Journal noted: “In 2011, there were 2,392 incidents of violent crime in Flint, which has a population just above 100,000. That same year, there were just 1,246 violent crimes in all 10 of the safest cities in America—which have 13 times as many residents as Flint among them.”

Children who grow up in Flint are disadvantaged in every conceivable sense of the word. Not only are they surrounded by appalling rates of poverty and lawlessness, but they are herded, en masse, through a public school system that is the very embodiment of dysfunction and incompetence. Even as that system allocates some $14,000 per year—roughly 40% more than the national average—to the education of each K-12 pupil in the city, students in Flint perform terribly on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests that measure their abilities in a variety of different subject areas. For example, in the 2012-13 academic year in Flint, fewer than 10% of eighth-graders had scores indicating proficiency in math, while 27% had scores indicating proficiency in reading. Only fifth-graders were tested in science, and fewer than 10% of them registered scores that indicated proficiency. Only fourth- and seventh-graders were tested in writing, and just 18.4% of the former and 15.9% of the latter registered scores that indicated proficiency.

The high-school graduation rate for students in the Flint City School District is a paltry 52%. In their composite ACT college-readiness assessment scores in 2012-13, fully 98.4% of test-takers failed to meet college-readiness benchmarks.

Given the ubiquity of crime, poverty, unemployment, and substandard schools, it is no surprise that Flint’s population has declined markedly in recent decades. After peaking at nearly 200,000 in the 1960s, it fell to 125,000 by the turn of the century and currently stands at about 101,000. The London Telegraph reports that “[t]he exodus—particularly of young people—coupled with the consequent collapse in property prices, has left street after street in sections of the city almost entirely abandoned.” All told, there are approximately 20,000 abandoned buildings in Flint today, including 32% of its residential properties. Real estate values in the city, meanwhile, have plummeted to a point where the average single-family house now sells for scarcely $16,000.

Nor do these ominous trends have any apparent end in sight. According to a 2013 report from planners in Michigan’s Genesee County (where Flint is located), Flint’s population is expected to sink to a mere 67,000 by the year 2040.

This piece was posted in May 2014.