"Essential...in showcasing people who are persistent, clever, flawed, loving, struggling and full of contradictions, Broke affirms why it’s worth solving the hardest problems in our most challenging cities in the first place. " —Anna Clark, The New York Times
"Through in-depth reporting of structural inequality as it affects real people in Detroit, Jodie Adams Kirshner's Broke examines one side of the economic divide in America" —Salon
"What Broke really tells us is how systems of government, law and finance can crush even the hardiest of boot-strap pullers." —Brian Alexander, author of Glass House
A galvanizing, narrative account of a city’s bankruptcy and its aftermath told through the lives of seven valiantly struggling Detroiters
Bankruptcy and the austerity it represents have become a common "solution" for struggling American cities. What do the spending cuts and limited resources do to the lives of city residents? In Broke, Jodie Adams Kirshner follows seven Detroiters as they navigate life during and after their city's bankruptcy. Reggie loses his savings trying to make a habitable home for his family. Cindy fights drug use, prostitution, and dumping on her block. Lola commutes two hours a day to her suburban job. For them, financial issues are mired within the larger ramifications of poor urban policies, restorative negligence on the state and federal level and—even before the decision to declare Detroit bankrupt in 2013—the root causes of a city’s fiscal demise.
Like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, Broke looks at what municipal distress means, not just on paper but in practical—and personal—terms. More than 40 percent of Detroit’s 700,000 residents fall below the poverty line. Post-bankruptcy, they struggle with a broken real estate market, school system, and job market—and their lives have not improved.
Detroit is emblematic. Kirshner makes a powerful argument that cities—the economic engine of America—are never quite given the aid that they need by either the state or federal government for their residents to survive, not to mention flourish. Success for all America’s citizens depends on equity of opportunity.
Kirshner (International Bankruptcy), a research professor at NYU, presents a thorough examination of Detroit's fiscal and civic situation following the city's 2013 declaration of bankruptcy, demonstrating that vast swaths of the community remain underserved. She focuses on seven of the more than 200 Detroit residents she interviewed, narrating their struggles empathetically. She speaks to people who were conned by predatory real estate developers who left them on the hook for unpaid property taxes, and observes neighborhoods plagued by power outages and areas filled with "derelict city-owned properties" left to languish. Wealthier communities, she finds, hire private security forces while stray bullets fly through windows in low-income areas. With the shuttering of many public schools, charter schools are the only option for many, and residents find it difficult to get their children the care and attention they need. Meanwhile, the city offers subsidies to businesses moving into the downtown area and partially funded a new hockey stadium with a tax hike. Kirshner convincingly argues that the bankruptcy saved the city, but failed to make a measurable difference in the lives of the vast majority of people who live there. This is a valuable cautionary tale.