THE BLOG
07/25/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

Detroit Riots of 1967: Lessons for Today

The city of Detroit has declared bankruptcy (Globe). In the summer of 1967, I was in Detroit, with a group of beginning early childhood teachers from around the country. It was a very hopeful time. We were studying how President Johnson's "War on Poverty" would help children and families who were living in poverty in the inner city. A focal point of the "war," Head Start, was in its infancy. It offered new hope, part of a comprehensive set of programs and services designed to help "lift" children and families out of poverty. There was much optimism about the future for Detroit's poor. Officials described Detroit as a "demonstration city" that had quickly and effectively implemented all available programs and resources provided by the federal government to fight the War on Poverty. The deterioration of inner city Detroit had been halted, and many in high places were hopeful that the downward spiral had even been stopped, even reversed.

Then, late one steamy summer night, I woke up to the smell of smoke. I looked out my window and saw the glow of flames in the distance. I heard sirens and an occasional gunshot. The devastating Detroit riots of 1967 had begun. Over the next few days I got a small taste of what it means to live in a war zone. We were housebound. We regularly saw troops and heard the rumble of tanks and machine gun fire. We turned on no lights at night and developed extensive procedures for evacuating in case of fire.

A few days after things calmed down, we were taken on a "tour" to see the rubble. I was devastated at what I saw, as was the city. I volunteered at an early childhood program that had survived. The children were clingy, angry, hungry, electively mute, teary. It made me teary too, and discouraged. All the hope I had gained from listening to Detroit officials was dashed. I gained a whole new level of appreciation of how complex the goal of combating poverty and its effects really is. I deeply hoped that the country would wholeheartedly take on the challenge. Little did I know that the riots brought Detroit to a place of no return -- decades of decay, insolvency, and failing schools that disproportionally affected its poor and vulnerable children.

The declaration of bankruptcy by Detroit has occurred almost 46 years to the day, in July 1967, when the catastrophic riots broke out. This week's monumental event too graphically symbolizes the failure of America to implement the commitment it made in the Sixties to reduce poverty, especially among children, when its lifelong effects can be the greatest. The reality is that poverty has gotten worse in the intervening years -- in Detroit and throughout the country. In 2011, child poverty levels in Detroit were close to 60%, among the highest rates in the nation. But beyond Detroit, Measuring World Poverty (UNICEF 2012) reports that of the top 35 economically advanced countries, the U.S. ranks 34th on levels of children poverty with a rate of over 23%.

Head Start represents one of the most effective programs we have to eliminate poverty. It costs approximately $7,500 per child per year. In 2012, just over 850,000 low-income young children attended Head Start -- about 50 percent of eligible children. Approximate 70,000 of those slots will be lost next year because of cuts caused by the US budget sequester. After the sequester, the number of eligible young children not attending Head Start will exceed the number of eligible children who are attending. This situation exists despite the fact that research has shown over and over that in the long run, while Head Start does not fully eliminate poverty or its effects, it does have a significant impact. In fact, it pays for itself and a lot more -- i.e., estimates are that for every $1 spent on Head Start, society saves $7 over the child's life.

Comparing the Head Start figures to the costs of prisons in the US deepens my distress about where poverty in this country is headed. The US has more prisoners proportionate to its population than any other country. Since the Detroit riots of 1967, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially--from less than 200,000 prisoners in 1965 to 2.2 million today--at an average cost of over $34,000/prisoner/year. A large proportion of the prison population experienced poverty as children. And incarceration increases the likelihood of staying in poverty after release from prison.

It is time to face the realities of poverty in America today. Let the declaration of bankruptcy of Detroit sound the alarm for us all. Building more prisons will not solve the problems of poverty. Nor will they contribute to the well being of America. Let this week's events in Detroit lead to a reexamination of our goals as a nation and how we can reach them. Let us take advantage of the vast amounts of new knowledge we have gained since 1967 about how to reduce poverty and its impact on children. Let us recognize that to keep this country great we need to make a national commitment to use more of our wealth and resources to meet the needs of all our people, especially our children.