In Detroit, jobs are scarce. Money is short. That has led to an underground economy that one Detroit reporter calls a “gift economy.” Valerie Vande Panne’s piece is titled “Life Without Money in Detroit’s Survival Economy.”
“It’s a little bit different from a barter system,” Vande Panne explained on
Michigan Radio’s Stateside program. “Economists tend to think of barter as ‘I will give you one loaf of bread for one pound of meat,’ or something like that. And it’s a system that tends to take place when people don’t know one another and they want to make sure their exchange is equal,” Vande Panne said. She says what’s happening in Detroit is whatever people can share they do. People who are in need can take it. It’s a neighbor-helping- neighbor system that’s evolved in areas that long have been impoverished and short of outside help.
While Detroit’s central business districts are in the midst of a revival not seen in decades, much of the rest of the city, the residential neighborhoods, languish.
The prosperity in downtown is not making its way to Detroit’s people in any meaningful way.
The Bloomberg article tells the stories of several people and how the “gift economy” works in Detroit.
While some efforts are more formalized (such as a time bank where an hour babysitting might earn someone an hour of a mechanic’s time), much of the sharing is informal.
A favor today might be paid back in the future, but there is no guarantee. You help because you can.
Vande Panne’s research found there are plenty of stories of neighbors looking forward to helping when they are able.
She found one 21-year- old woman who bought her first car. Although her story wasn’t part of the final article, Vande
Panne says the woman was excited because she’d be able to give people who
lived near her rides to the doctor or other appointments. No one in her
immediate area owns a car. Most don’t have smart phones, so getting Uber or
Lyft is out of the question. The woman said getting a taxi in her neighborhood
could take hours. And, despite improved service, public transit is still considered
One of the people featured in the Bloomberg article was Jessica Ramirez. She
operates Detroiters Helping Each Other. It’s a store that operates something like
a thrift store with one key difference: it gives away its goods.
“If somebody needs an item, we’ll post it on our page and if somebody has it,
they can drop it off or we’ll pick it up,” Ramirez told Michigan Radio.
The top priority for the store is families that might be in trouble with Child
Protective Services (CPS) because they don’t have what they need for
children’s welfare. Perhaps the home doesn’t have the proper number of beds or
an operating refrigerator.
“Big ticket items like refrigerators and stoves, those are so hard to come by and
there’s a mile long list,” Ramirez explained. She just helped a single mother with
five children find a replacement refrigerator.
An appliance like that can make the difference between a family staying together
or children being taken away by the state.
Ramirez says another priority for her store is fire victims. The store gets donated
items from all over the city, from the suburbs, and even beyond Michigan.
Journalist Valerie Vande Panne’s story doesn’t really end. For the people in
Detroit the economic future looks to be a lot like the past has been for a long
time. In that economy, any cash they get goes to pay for power, water, or rent.
The rest they’ll figure out with a little help from their neighbors.
Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative(#Djcnews) on Michigan Radio comes
from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism,
the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.