Burning Questions: Recession, School Safety, Gun Control, & More

Local experts cast their predictions for the hottest issues of 2023
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

In last year’s “Burning Questions,” we pondered pressing topics related to the approaching 2022 elections. There may be no controversial campaigns or hotly contested races in store for the coming year, yet somehow, the political climate seems as fervent as ever. The sense of calm that settled in a few months back, once the ballots were cast and victors declared, has already begun to recede as we contemplate what 2023 might hold. Among the topics making us sweat this January: mercurial gas prices, rising tensions around school safety, the looming threat of recession — and of course, the roads.

Will we see a full-blown recession in 2023? Who knows? 

The “R-word” seems to have become a constant presence in our lives. For months now, the Federal Reserve has been announcing interest-rate hikes on what feels like a daily basis, thus fueling already extensive debate on whether our financial fears will be realized (and whether they already have been). But for all the discourse, a concrete answer has remained elusive.

According to the International Monetary Fund, that answer is: probably. In its World Economic Outlook report, released in October 2022, the organization predicts that, barring swift action on inflation from policymakers, a recession is imminent — at least on a global scale.

Wayne State University economics professor Michael Belzer is less concerned. “Unless something bad happens, I don’t personally think we’ll really get into a full recession,” he says.

While multiple factors, such as the Russian war on Ukraine and the enduring disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on global markets and supply chains, continue to drive inflation, there is cause for optimism. In particular, Belzer points to falling unemployment rates and persistent job availability as signs that the labor market is continuing down the road to recovery. However, he is wary of the Fed’s “aggressive tight-money policies” potentially knocking it off course. Rather than curbing inflation, he thinks steep increases in interest rates could actually serve to stifle economic improvement.

“I don’t think that high interest rates will reduce inflation, because the inflation we’re experiencing in this moment isn’t caused by demand shock, like it is in most recessions.”

Will the pain at the pump return? Probably not — at least for now. 

Gas prices have mellowed out since shattering Michigan’s record high, at $5.22 per gallon, in June 2022. Still, the sudden and acute price shifts we saw last year, as well as suggestions by some experts that this relief rests on the precariously thin ice of current world affairs, are keeping some folks on edge.

WSU’s Belzer, who specializes in transportation economics, says international intricacies such as these are a big part of the reason fuel prices are particularly difficult to predict.

“It’s important to understand that gas prices are not local — oil is a commodity traded on the global market.” However, he suspects that the root of the initial price relaxation — the global economic downturn and resulting reduction in fuel demand — will also “keep the lid on fuel prices” … at least for the next year or so.

In a way, it’s a tradeoff: We’ll likely continue to enjoy milder gas prices, but only thanks to the economic declines that are expected to continue affecting various foreign countries — and to some degree, the U.S.

Will there be any movement on red flag laws? Possibly. 

Michigan activists and politicians alike have been tossing the idea of red flag laws around for years. Also known as “extreme risk protection orders,” or ERPOs, these measures aim to keep firearms out of the possession of those a court determines to be a danger to themselves or others.

While multiple versions of such laws have been brought before the state Legislature, none have amounted to anything. It looked like that might change with the proposal of Senate Bills 856-858 in February 2022. When the legislation died upon referral to the Government Operations Committee shortly after its introduction, some breathed a sigh of relief, others one of disappointment. But discourse around school safety and gun control has only intensified since, and it has both parties wondering, “What happens now?”

Michigan State University criminal justice professor April Zeoli says that thanks to the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, there may be one fewer impediment to passing a red flag law in the state. The federal statute passed in June 2022, allotting $750 million for state crisis intervention services — including the implementation of ERPOs. In other words, the money is there. The motivation, however, is another matter.

Zeoli believes the growing body of research on red flag laws may also move the needle by providing answers to lawmakers’ questions. A study she published in October 2022, for instance, examines 6,700 ERPO cases across six states and shows that such policies are being used — effectively, some signs indicate — as a response to mass-shooting threats.

Zeoli doesn’t think any of this would convince Republicans, whose control of the state Legislature has long kept red flag laws distinctly out of reach. But with Democrats taking the helm in the wake of the November 2022 elections, the tides could be changing. “Given that Michigan’s Democratic lawmakers have previously introduced ERPO bills, I would guess there’s a better chance that such a bill could pass.”

How will metro Detroit districts address school security? They’re all over the map. 

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

School violence hit home for metro Detroiters in late 2021 with the tragic Oxford High School shooting. Since then, local schools have found themselves groping for the optimal security solution while simultaneously fielding wide-ranging opinions and concerns from parents. The region’s largest school system, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, is locked in an ongoing struggle over the districtwide implementation of metal detectors, though Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has come out against the idea.

Meanwhile, districts like Anchor Bay and Oxford wasted no time in enlisting armed guards — doubtless the most controversial move — with the latter also investing in an artificial intelligence gun detection platform called ZeroEyes.

Warren Consolidated Schools, another of the region’s bigger districts, is resisting the push for new and drastic security initiatives. Rather, Superintendent Robert Livernois says, WCS is focused on expanding its current methods, which include providing extensive crisis training for staff, as well as fostering a culture in which students feel comfortable sharing troubling information with them. “Especially considering how many kids we have, it’s an extraordinarily useful tool — it allows us to be proactive as opposed to reactive.”

WCS is also part of the Macomb Intermediate School District, whose constituents have put
in place a unified crisis plan and continue to coordinate on security issues at monthly meetings. From such interaction with other districts, Livernois knows many of them plan to take advantage of funding recently allocated by the state to institute school resource officers.

Apart from that, however, the lack of consensus on what additional security measures — if any at all — should be taken seems persistent. “I think it is a mixed bag right now,” Livernois says.

Will the “damn roads” get fixed? Yes, but… 

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

With COVID-19 largely in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s rearview mirror as she cruises into her second term, the public will be even more vigilant that she make good on her trademark campaign promise.

According to political consultant Jeff Timmer, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, they won’t be disappointed. “It seems every damn road in Michigan was already in the process of being fixed last year.”

Over 13,000 miles, in fact, had been rebuilt under her administration, the governor claimed in her final gubernatorial debate. “We can only expect more improvement in Whitmer’s second term.”

Oftentimes, the executive agenda is at the mercy of opposing lawmakers, but with both chambers of the state Legislature now in Whitmer’s corner, pushing her plans through should be a breeze. Plus, Timmer notes, “Even the Republicans will want the roads fixed, and they will be more amenable now that Whitmer is unable to run again.”

Still, as Belzer points out, the infrastructure problem can’t be remedied overnight. “It will take substantial money and time to fix what Michigan leaders have been leaving untended for decades.” One of the factors he says will continue to constrain meaningful progress is the state’s method of distributing funds. “The current formula allocates funding disproportionately to rural areas. Meanwhile, the Michigan region with the greatest economic activity and population — metro Detroit — has the worst roads.”

Will Michigan students bounce back from the setbacks of the pandemic? Maybe next year. 

Michigan students incurred significant learning deficits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These deficits are, however, on par with those affecting the rest of the country. Data from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for instance, reveals declines in test scores in the areas of math, reading, or both across every state. Still, Michigan is tasked with digging itself out of a deeper hole than most.

Amber Arellano, executive director of education advocacy nonprofit The Education Trust Midwest, says that’s due to the substandard condition Michigan’s education system was in pre-pandemic. “Michigan was already lagging behind in key areas,” she says. “And assessment data confirms that Michigan students are now even farther behind — particularly in reading.”

Even in the face of these challenges, Arellano is confident in the state’s ability to make an educational comeback. But, she emphasizes, it’s going to take work — and time. There are a few initiatives she points to as essential in closing the learning gaps. These include providing schools with immediate and ongoing support for the application of proven methods like one- on-one tutoring and extended learning programs, such as summer school. She says these efforts should be targeted in particular at those students who experienced the greatest learning disruptions during the pandemic. “There is an urgent need for investment and action, and it has to be a multiyear commitment from state and district leaders.”

In other words: “A full educational recovery by the end of the year is unlikely.”

This story is from the January 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition