You wouldn’t think there would be much connection between Detroit, a troubled rust belt city, and the bustling port city of Hiroshima, Japan. But trust us, countless bloggers see a link.
Do a Google search of the phrase "Hiroshima and Detroit" and you’ll see hundreds of links to blogs, all displaying variations of a claim that’s been widely circulated by chain e-mailers for the last few years.
The e-mails open with black and white photographs of an atomic bomb mushroom cloud and the ruins of Hiroshima that followed the U.S. attack on Aug. 6, 1945. As you scroll down, you see bright color photos of a skyline, with high-rise buildings and busy highways -- the modern Hiroshima.
Then comes a series of grim photos of Detroit, showing abandoned and collapsing apartment buildings and houses.
The e-mails include text that varies from version to version but conveys the same message: that welfare is the reason for Detroit’s problems.
The email that reached our in-box ended with a question and a statement: "What has caused more long-term destruction -- the A-Bomb or U.S. Government (Democrat) welfare programs created to buy the votes of those who want someone to care for them? Japan does not have a welfare system. Work or do without."
We wondered whether it was worth our time to fact-check something so seemingly preposterous. But when we realized how widely this e-mail is circulating and how much it seems to be accepted as fact, we decided to forge ahead.
Clearly, Detroit is in trouble. When Mayor David Bing gave his first state-of-the-city address last year, he noted the city was nearly bankrupt and facing a $325-million deficit. Unemployment was approaching 30 percent, he said, and 50,000 homeowners faced foreclosure.
But did welfare cause Detroit’s problems? We put that question to Margaret Dewar, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.
"That is ridiculous," Dewar said, adding that she has never heard anyone suggest welfare was a contributing factor. Since 1950, Detroit has lost more than 80 percent of its jobs, Dewar said, because manufacturers embraced new technologies and moved their businesses to the suburbs.
That destroyed retail businesses and led to a drastic drop in the city’s population; from the 1950 peak of 1.85 million, the population had fallen to about 900,000 by 2009.
Dewar’s conclusions were seconded by Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote a prize-winning book called "The Origin of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit."
Asked whether welfare played a role in the city’s troubles, Sugrue had a one-word answer: "No."
Detroit’s decline began shortly after World War II, he said, for the same reasons Dewar cited.
If welfare were the problem, Sugrue said, then one could expect to see hollowed out sections of Stockholm or Paris, cities in nations with generous welfare programs.
Then, we examined the other half of the chain-email claim: that Japan has no welfare programs.
Timothy S. George, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island who specializes in postwar Japan, said Japan actually has an extensive social welfare system -- though not as generous as programs in many European countries.
Nicole Freiner, an assistant professor of political science at Bryant University who focuses on Asian politics, notes that the United States helped rebuild those cities with a portion of the Marshall Plan, which also helped rebuild Europe.
Japan, she said, offers such social welfare programs as social security, pensions, national health care and coverage for unemployment and occupational injuries, and benefits for small children and the elderly. It also provides what many in the United States would define as welfare -- financial assistance to those in need.
She referred us to an academic paper that finds Japan spending almost 16 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on social welfare programs. That’s less than the 21 percent the United States spends. But it’s not zero.
George’s response to the e-mail: "Disgusting. A ridiculous comparison that’s really in bad taste. In fact, it’s outrageous."
The Hiroshima-Detroit email utilizes a gallery of dramatic photos that attempt to distort history -- in two countries. The conclusion is ridiculous, the definition of Pants on Fire.