Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Long Walk To Work


James Robertson walking to work
Detroit, Michigan
Hello Everyone:

Here is a really fascinating human interest story that caught blogger's attention.  It is the story of James Robertson, the 56-year-old Detroit autoworker who commutes 21-miles to work everyday, "...part of his 23-mile commute from his home in the city to his factory job in Rochester Hills..."  Mr. Robertson has been doing this five days a week, ever since his Honda stopped working.  His walk takes him through rough neighborhoods and he has to reconcile with snow and sub-freezing temperature during the winter.  Here is the irony of the story, one would think that as an autoworker, Mr. Robertson would be able to get some kind of discount on a new car or he can afford a new car thanks to union wages.  Not so, as David A. Graham recently reported in The Atlantic, "Detroit Auto-Worker James Robertson Walks 21 Miles To Work."  Despite the outpouring of positive response and generous donations totaling $70,000 and climbing toward a new car.  However, Mr. Graham points out, "Robertson is no doubt deserving, but it'll take larger changes to help others who face similar struggles."  David Graham proceeds to outline the key issues highlighted by James Robertson's story.

SMART bus at Rosa Parks Transit Center
Detroit, Michigan

Transportation, it should sound like a no-brainer in Detroit but Mr. Graham tells us "...the obvious problem here: lack of mass-transit options."  Mr. Robertson drove to work until his 1988 Honda Accord died ten years ago.  You read correctly.  In an auto-centric city like Detroit, this is not good.  Mr. Robertson's hourly wage $10.55 is about a dollar fifty more than the living wage in Wayne County (home to Detroit) yet it is still not enough for him to afford a new car, insurance, or maintenance.  Citing The Freep's Bill Laitner, Mr. Graham writes,

Robertson's 23-mile commute from home takes four hours.  It's so time-consuming because he must traverse the no-bus land of rolling Rochester Hills.  It's on of scores of tri-county communites (nearly 40 in Oakland County alone) where voters opted not to the SMART transit millage.  So it has no fixed-route bus service.

Detroit has never been too keen on mass transit-thanks to the car companies who helped quicken the end of streetcars-and it has only gotten worse over the last five years.  As the city contracts and people struggle, there less transportation options.  However, with the unemployment rate within the city at almost 25 percent, job seekers must leave the city limits for employment.  Overall, Detroit's unemployment rate is a brighter seven percent.

Abandoned Detroit-area house

With limited mass transit options, comes limited mobility.  Mobility is one of the big issues in economic recovery:  While there are jobs available, the jobs are not where the people workers need them.  It is one thing to say the people should move where the jobs are, it is quite different in practice.  The people are tied down by underwater mortgages and the high cost of relocation.  The metropolitan region is a sampling of this geographic inequality.  As the city suffers from a diminishing population, limited service, water shut downs, and high crime, neighboring Oakland County, where Mr. Robertson works is doing well.

Oakland County has been run, for over twenty years, by L. Brooks Patterson an effective manager. The New Yorker documented Mr. Patterson's efforts to secede his county from Detroit and putting an end to regional infrastructure projects.  Oakland is an affluent county and it is also where the jobs are, therefore, workers such as Mr. Robertson must undertake whatever measures they can to get to work.

Detroit Police Department crime scene


As previously mentioned, James Robertson's daily trek takes him through some rough neighborhoods.  As he puts it, "I have to go through Highland Park, and you never know what you're going to run into...It's pretty dangerous.  Really it is (dangerous) from 8 Mile on down.  They're not the type of people you want to run into.  But I've never had any trouble."  Mr. Graham tells us the opposite is true.  While Mr. Robertson did not want to discuss it, his supervisor told our reporter that Mr. Robertson has been mugged.  To emphasize this point, David Graham reports, "Detroit has the highest murder and violent-crime rates of any major city."

Detroit Medical Center


James Robertson's long walks to and from work would make him the envy of all exercise fanatics.  Really, the wear and tear on his legs and knees is not good for him.  According to a co-worker, "He comes in here looking real tired-his legs, his knees."  Mr. Robertson is also sleep deprived, compensating for it by drinking 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew or Coca-Cola, filled with all sorts of unhealthy god-knows-what.  However, given the long walk, all that sugar and periodic table's worth of chemicals may not have such a deleterious affect.  However, Mr. Graham ponders, "What happens if Robertson's knees or some other part of his body gives out prematurely?  Presumably he'd end up relying on disability benefits."

Workforce Participation, Ages 16 and Older
Bureau of Labor Statistics

Detroit residents have succumb to an conglomeration of forces, with no panacea. However, James Robertson's labors offer insight into the types of placed on a person if they want to work.  The chart on the left presents a steep decline in workforce participation over the last few years.  The chart is deceptive because one major factor is people are aging out of the of the workforce.  As Mr. Graham observes, "Still, one of the things that makes Robertson's story so stunning is the context of fewer Americans going to work."

This story is not just about a threat to poor Americans or Detroiters, it is a threat to the American economy.  The more people available for work, the better the nation is.  However, not everyone can or is willing to commute 21-miles to and from work, five days a week.  Mr. Graham writes, "The problem isn't just people who don't work aren''t contributing to that; it's that there's also the cost of more and more people drawing federal disability benefits."  Some question if said recipients are genuinely disabled.  Having said that, it is a drag on the national economy to have a large number of people available for work but are unable to find nearby employment and have to draw assistance.  This is why the story of James Robertson has gone viral-it is the story of what one person will do to punch a time clock.

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