Urban Fiscal Crisis and Local Emergency Management Tracking the Color Line in Michigan

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Nate Breznau
L. Owen Kirkpatrick


The usage of emergency management by United States’ state-level governments to resolve troubled municipal finances increased dramatically over the past four decades. Layoffs, school closings, pension renegotiations, and sale of public assets are products of such policies, and these policies unevenly affect residents racialized as Black. Recent legal decisions argue this is an innocent byproduct of Black concentration in fiscally distressed cities, suggesting that targeted emergency intervention is colorblind in its application. If true, any race-bias is mere statistical discrimination among fiscally-challenged areas. We investigate this assertion, asking if racially inequitable outcomes signal differential impact on, or differential treatment of Black people. We investigate Michigan, the site of the country’s most intensive emergency management deployments. Using all politically incorporated units in Michigan, 2007-2013, we develop a counterfactual test using the state’s own fiscal distress scale and adjusting for percentage Black and median household income of each unit. We find a net statistical effect of the percentage of Black residents on the likelihood of emergency management after adjusting for fiscal distress. If correctly specified, our model gives evidence that racial bias was a factor in the application of emergency management – that units in Michigan with similar fiscal distress levels were more likely to get emergency management if they had higher Black populations, all else equal. We cannot identify the specific micro-mechanisms at play, meaning we cannot conclude if any actors in the process had race-biased intentions. We discuss the meaning of our findings in light of this.

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Author Biographies

Nate Breznau

Dr. Nate Breznau is a Principal Investigator of several German Science Foundation interdisciplinary projects hosted at the Center for Inequality and Social Policy (SOCIUM) at the University of Bremen. He specializes in income inequality, public preferences, social policy, group dynamics and open science.

L. Owen Kirkpatrick

Dr. L. Owen Kirkpatrick is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Southern Methodist University's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. He specializes in urban growth, fiscal crisis, emergency management law and the crisis demographics of cities.