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The Distributional Consequences of of Detroit's 2013 Bankruptcy

A rich tradition of welfare state scholarship investigates social policy development at the federal level. Less has been written, however, about how social safety nets are created or dismantled at local levels of government. This project seeks to extend sociological understandings of the changing role of government in social provision by examining the development of public employee pension benefits in the City of Detroit. Specifically, this project investigates how contractual retirement benefits were changed through the city's recent bankruptcy. 

Though historically uncommon, city bankruptcies have grown more frequent in recent years. Chapter 9 of Title 11 of the federal bankruptcy code provides a legal framework for the adjustment of a city’s debt. The intent is to alleviate an otherwise crushing debt burden through the reorganization of a city’s balance sheet. Reorganizing the balance sheet implies both material and symbolic projects. The material project entails a concrete reorganization of the city government and its obligations to various local and extra-local stakeholders: contracts are abrogated, promises are reneged, departments are dissolved and reconstituted, select services are privatized or regionalized. The symbolic project obtains to the balance sheet as a representational device that city governments use to manage their presentation of self. To declare bankruptcy implies a profound loss of legitimacy. To restructure the balance sheet implies a moral project to restore the city to creditworthiness, and to attract the creative class. 

Drawing primarily on archival and interview data, this project analyzes the socio-legal processes involved in the renegotiation of the city's promises to retired municipal workers. 

Research assistants will undertake a variety of tasks, including:
1. Transcribing interviews and hearings
2. Collecting archival data
3. Conducting literature reviews
4. Developing a database of newspaper articles
5. As the project progresses, RAs may also conduct preliminary data analysis by coding interviews.
6. RAs with coding skills may have an opportunity to develop code towards a discourse analysis of newspaper articles.

Supervising Faculty Member: Greta Krippner

Graduate Student: Mikell Hyman

Contact information:

Average hours of work per week: 6 - 12

Range of credit hours students can earn: 2 - 4

Number of positions available: 2