MILWAUKEE — A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with the same old results, shows Milwaukee continues to be the worst city in the country for African Americans.
“When I read the study, I could feel it directly,” Ald. Khalif Rainey said. “I grew up in 53206. I can apply it directly to my life. I can see it in the lives of my friends and family. And how many Black people in the City of Milwaukee, we feel stagnant. I really, literally felt sick.”
The study, led by Professor Marc Levine, looks at the quality of life for African Americans in the 50 largest metropolitan cities. Milwaukee ranked in the bottom 10 for all 65 different factors.
“I don’t think anyone who is breathing today would deny that we obviously are at a crossroads and facing this incredible issue of systemic and structural inequality and injustice,” Levine said.
From homeownership rates, income gaps, management positions, poverty; Milwaukee is either dead last or very near the bottom.
But what could more startling, some of these areas, Milwaukee is worse than it was 50 years ago; just a couple of years after the Civil Rights Act was signed.
“The Black poverty rate has gone down significantly since the 1960s,” Levine said. “The Black-white income gap is not at the national level in Milwaukee.”
The poverty rate of African Americans in Milwaukee 33.4 percent. For white households, it’s just 7.1 percent.
The gaps in income should come as no surprise then, but the details are startling.
Levine’s study says, “The median Black household in Milwaukee today is significantly poorer than it was 40 years ago.”
In 1979, African Americans made 58.3 percent of what their white counterparts made. To make that easier to understand, for every dollar a white household made, African Americans would make about 58 cents.
Nationally, the average has gotten better. African Americans make 60.9 percent of what their white counterparts make.
Not in Milwaukee though. That number has dipped significantly, to just 42 percent. The median Black household in Milwaukee makes 42 cents to every dollar made by white households in the city.
Levine points to the absence of manufacturing jobs since the 70s and 80s. He says, since those manufacturing jobs left, about 80 to 85 percent, or roughly 100,000 family-supporting wage jobs were eliminated. Those manufacturing jobs left the central city and went elsewhere; predominantly white suburbs and counties.
Milwaukee has the lowest rate of “suburbanization” in the country. Nearly 90 percent of Milwaukee County’s African American population lives in the city, making it more difficult for African Americans in the central city to get to those jobs.
While it shouldn’t be surprising that Milwaukee has the highest poverty rate, what should be alarming is comparing the outcomes for African Americans and their white counterparts.
“A Black college graduate, living in the 53206 zip code has the same estimated annual income as a white high school dropout living in Waukesha County,” Levine said. “That says a great deal. We all agree, education matters. The more you learn, the more you earn. That is true; a Black college graduate makes more than a Black high school dropout. But there is still discrimination and still geographic issues of spacial mismatch of where jobs are that negatively affect African Americans to get employment and get family supporting wages and, thus, having family supporting income.”
In addition, 1 in 7 African Americans lives in extreme poverty; that is below half of the poverty line. In the United States, the poverty line for a family of four is $26,200. Extreme poverty would put that same family of four at less than $13,100 per year.
“The statistics are not in charge of the future,” Andre Lee Ellis, Founder and Executive Director of We Got This Incorporated said. “They should help motivate us to get there.”
Ellis says he’s mentored thousands of troubled youth over the years. He’s been in Milwaukee for 60 years and has seen the changes apparent in this study.
“Milwaukee was one of the best places for African Americans,” Ellis recalled. “When I grew up, it was known as one of the cleanest cities. African Americans would take vacation here in the summertime because of how clean it was and the free activities we had going on.”
Even though things have changed, and these indicators in Levine’s study point to Cream City being markedly worse for people who look like Ellis, he has hope.
“It’s not all about money, it's about honey,” Ellis said. “Provide a little more love and I think we’ll see a lot of this stuff begin to vanish. I’m optimistic, change is coming.”
There is honey on the horizon. The City of Milwaukee has established an Office of African American Affairs, located at 2578 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Drive. They handle issues facing the members of the African American community one-on-one. The city, including County Executive David Crowley, has committed to making all decisions through a racial equity lens. It’s something Levine says is important to seeing the results of his study change.
“Investing in racial equity is important,” Levine said. “Lots of cities are beginning to establish racial equity lenses for budgetary policy and for economic development policy. It’s making those decisions that don’t appear to be racial equity decisions but they are racial equity decisions.
“This is not simply a conversation to be had with elected leadership,” Rainey said. “It’s a conversation that needs to be had with private sector leaders and other leaders in our community that can actually move the needle forward for Black people in this city.”
While there is progress being made, Levine noted, all of these statistics were gathered in a pre-COVID-19 world. He fears, if real change isn’t made, African Americans, specifically in Milwaukee, will be hit the hardest long-term.