What’s Wrong With Milwaukee in Seven Charts

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This weekend’s episode of Moyers & Company and next week’s Frontline special Two American Families both tell the story of the Stanleys and the Neumanns, two Milwaukee families that Bill has been following since the breadwinners in each lost their well-paid factory jobs in 1990.

These Wisconsinites are part of a broader picture, representative of trends that effect many Americans. For nearly half a century, the Great Lakes region — Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, once at the core of America’s industrial belt — has been experiencing a continuing, dramatic decline in manufacturing. In the early 1980s, the bottom fell out.

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. (Click to enlarge).

Middle class workers and the poor in the region were hit particularly hard as median incomes dropped, particularly in cities. It’s not uncommon for cities to have lower median incomes than the state on the whole, but in many cities in the Great Lakes region, the gap is significant. In Milwaukee, median household income is only 68 percent of the Wisconsin average. Other cities in the area have even more significant gaps: Detroit and Cleveland both have median incomes of only 57 percent of their states’ averages.

At the same time, income inequality increased, with the already-wealthy pulling away from lower- and middle-income workers.

Wisconsin Budget Project. (Click to enlarge).

Some sectors of Milwaukee’s economy are growing, and new jobs are coming to the city. But the low pay for workers in these areas of growth makes it difficult to get by. The chart below compares average wages in these growing industries to the amount needed for a reasonable standard of living in Milwaukee as calculated by the nonprofit group Wider Opportunities for Women. Their standard for basic economic security takes into account expenses that the federal poverty line doesn’t, including housing, utilities, child care, transportation, health care, household goods, emergency and retirement savings and taxes.

Today, many of those living in the city are impoverished. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction found that 83.5 percent of children in Milwaukee Public Schools qualify for free or reduced price school lunches, an indicator of child poverty. That’s the highest rate in the state. The surrounding suburbs have some of the lowest rates in the state.*

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

A study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that overwhelmingly, the city’s working poor households are headed by a single parent, usually a mother. These families were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession, and often fall far short of achieving a comfortable standard of living. Many struggle even to break the poverty line.

A separate study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee showed a growing disparity in employment between African American and white working men. Milwaukee has often been cited as one of the most segregated cities in the country, and many primarily-black sections of Milwaukee now have employment rates among working-age males below 50 percent.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


*Child poverty (as measured by free or reduced-price lunches) has also increased statewide. See this graphic for more.

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  • Jeff Spitzer-Resnick

    Here’s more data to chew on as the Schools to Prison Pipeline feeds all of this. http://systemschangeconsulting.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/putting-an-end-to-the-school-to-prison-pipeline/

  • Gregory Clifford

    It’s our own consumer purchases that govern the success or failure of our economy. Trade agreements allow a foreign underclass to drive down our middle-class wages without paying any of the layers of taxes left on our own wage earners. This prices our labor and products out of the market. Allowing a non-taxpaying underclass within the U.S. does as much harm.

    At whatever level of government spending we agree on, earners will have to and do pay it anyway. Putting taxpayers out of work only means more strain on our remaining employed workers and our U.S. producer/employers. Import prices are then set just low-enough to put our people out of business, the rest is profit for tyrants and their complicit and disloyal importing “partners” in trade.

    Yet, one avenue remains for us to even the playing field between U.S.-produced goods and services and those of clever importers. That is to bypass international trade agreements by eliminating ALL taxes on the 99%, then place that tax on all goods and services sold within our own borders. Exports should go out tax free.

    Surely some would be harmed, but we comp the poor, sick, and the impoverished elderly anyway and that can be easily adjusted. It would fairly raise the on-shelf price of imports and lower the price of our own. That’s more money in-pocket and lower American prices. That favorable consumer choice gives America a fighting chance again. Compare this to someone selling watches out of his coat at a mall.

    That’s not fair to the legitimate shop owners and would run them out of business and ruin the mall, just as it will and it is ruining the economy of our country. There are over 400 billionaires in China and 600 billionaires in the U.S. Our tax methods and the resulting consumer choices do this. Our household wealth and wages are in free-fall still. It has to change now. For more prosperity, we have to do more work.

  • Gregory Clifford

    The pinch points of our economy are Authorize.net and the FEDACH and other automated electronic clearinghouses. Collect revenues there, without income tax filings for most on April 15th, and then let states collect from all cash transactions as most do now.

    Businesses are far fewer and easier to regulate, and a small transaction fee would be a painless, yet fair way to give Americans an even chance to buy American products. They’re foolish to now, because if they do, they’ve paid their taxes twice. We pay the taxes included in our inflated shelf prices, and again on form 1040. Fix it now!

  • Neil Forte

    In keeping with the corporate dominance of the economy and the disdain of women and children & to paraphrase Marie Antoinette.”let them eat cake”

  • Anonymous

    We blew it. Wisconsin took the lead in cutting the rungs off the ladder back out of poverty while embracing a set of policies (mainly, workfare replacement labor) that have successfully been phasing out the middle class. Since then, we have seen how deeply the poor and middle class, labor and those pushed out of family-supporting jobs, have been divided, pitted against each other, ensuring that there will be no push-back. We have virtually ended upward class mobility while clinging to a “get tough on the poor” agenda that successfully pushes people into poverty. So, the middle class continues to be phased out, and along with it, the political clout of the “masses.” Divide and conquer.

  • Anonymous

    “Allowing a non-taxpaying underclass…” WTF? Are you saying that those working for poverty wages, or worse off, should be the target? Pushed deeper into poverty by taxing them out of food and shelter? The poor already pay a disproportionate amount of their income in sales taxes put on basic needs. How about a guaranteed minimum wage that actually covers the most basic cost of living? Further, you must have been sleeping for a couple of decades if you think, “We comp the poor, sick, and the impoverished elderly anyway.” Only a shrinking portion of them. Welfare was wiped out. (TANF is a job program that actually saves corps piles of money via cheap, powerless labor.) We have lost a massive chunk of our former middle class manufacturing jobs, shipped out to foreign countries. Today, the life expectancy of US poor has been on a downhill slide. The more fortunate of the poor are used as super-cheap replacement labor, helping to phase out the middle class — the result of policies supported by the middle class. The less fortunate can and do die.

  • Anonymous

    Other than Unions and the Post WWII GI BIll, what the hell has made a significant difference in the growth of the middle class in America? How true might it be to say that in fact other than the period of time between about 1950 and the election of R. Regan as President there is no middle class of real success and substantial size in the USA? And let’s define middle class the hard way. To wit: A single bread winner employed. Married, 2 children. All financial needs met, including food, clothing, shelter, transportation, education of children through to BA or BS, retirement with dignity some financial legacy left for the children and still the children do better than the parents. Think about just how high a bar of income that takes in today’s world. And all of this achieved with only one worker in the home? How many of us even bother with such a dream any more?

  • Tracy Hutchison

    I think what he means by “Allowing a non-taxpaying underclass…” is we should be paying a tax-paying middle class instead. That’s kind of what I got from it.

  • angelique

    Quite a jumble of confusing an non sensical ideas.

  • Anonymous

    The appalling aspect of this is that our tax code allows expenses/costs of moving overseas to be deducted from taxable income. Neither party has seen fit to fix that; companies are allowed to underfund their pensions & dump them on tax payers if they go bankrupt – the us postal service has to.advance fund their out 75 years; us chartered firms can bring adultered medical & food products from their overseas ops fail to do even basic QC to ensure their products are safe and that is okay.

    We the people hired these jerks at the ballot box and need to get busy firing them esp the tea party aligned luddittes.

  • TheTransAtlanticRailroad

    We have met the enemy and he is us.

    How many people check to see where something is made? How many actively look for “Made in USA” or “Made in (anywhere but China)” on the label? How many are willing to pay the difference? Can we admit to ourselves that saving a few bucks means we are supporting the outsourcing of American jobs?

    How many of us lucky enough to still have pension funds know where the pension funds are invested? Could it be our pension funds are managed by investors who buy stock in Chinese companies? Importers? 3rd party speculators who profit when American companies fail?

    How many of us really know who owns the company we work for?

    How many of us are willing to write/call our State legislators or US Congressperson when major contracts for bridges or highways or other infrastructure go to foreign companies?

    What kind of car do you drive? If a foreign brand, is it at least made in the US?

    Do we really understand the differences between democracy, plutocracy, oligarchy, corporatocracy, aristocracy, communism, socialism and fascism?

    If anything is “too big to fail” and deserving of a national plan of financial and legislative assistance, shouldn’t it be the next generation of Americans?

  • simpledoesitbest

    But if we really recall what we’ve done in the world, our trade agreements were and still are based on slavery which now comes back to bite us in the backside. I have no idea how it could be done but every wealthy country should have to import products and resources and pay the same rate to a bank like the IMF exactly the amounts that these things would cost in their own country. The poorer country would receive only what payment corresponds to its own money system and the additional moneys would be taken by the IMF and put into a fund earmarked for that country to improve its own social and natural environments and its own self-sufficiency needs. There would be no need for countries to change what economy works best for them just in order to compete globally in all things. Trade would develop out of the need of each country to buy what one cannot find or make in its own land.

  • OmaSteak

    It is hard to watch good people struggle in a tough economic region although I’m left wondering why they don’t relocate to someplace that has better economic prospects? Send your mortgage company the keys and find greener pastures. A house is a lousy investment unless you are renting it to someone else. I see the guests were once again reprising the mantra, “Let’s take the 1%’s wealth and give everyone a share” as their preferred solutions to every problem. I know Mr. Moyers talks a good game with his constant focus on “income inequality” but what I’d like to see is an audited statement of Mr. Moyers net worth and the income he pulls out of PBS. I’d be willing to bet we’d see Mr. Moyers is easily in the top 5% of income earners with a substantial net worth. So, why don’t we take the wealth of the top 5% and give everyone a share Mr. Moyers…including everything you’ve ever saved or invested???

  • Derek Ryter

    Adjusted gross income change and comparison charts are even worse than this. The upper income brackets have decreased earning income and moved it to capital gains as GW Bush lowered the tax rate. There is a huge income to the rich from capital gains that doesn’t show up in income tax rates, and this income decreases with wealth accordingly.

  • k2

    Don’t forget to relate employment to education. All three subsets have dropped in employment rates, and the chart is set to show racial disparity. What are the education level comparisons for these three groups? Granted, something MUST be done to keep youth of all racial groups in school and invested in the educational process since the years when a grade school, or even high school, education was enough to secure a living wage are long since gone. That being said, are we to assume that whites as a whole are more likely to graduate, and thus have a lower rate of unemployment? I am not trying to deny racism — I have witnessed it on many an occasion — but the higher the education the more likely to get the job…

  • roadsnakes

    This problem started years ago. Did we address it? No! We ended up adding to it! 49% of the people voted for $cott Walker, and now things are getting worse. If you`re bought and paid for by the top 1%, what did people think was going happen!
    In his own words……”I dropped a bomb on them”
    “Divide and Conquer”

  • marleytheiguana

    When I was in Australia in June 95% of the products on their shelves we things made in Australia. I’m sure that is why they have a thriving economy and their money is worth more than ours. They support their people not every other country like the US.

  • zaltor

    To me these charts reveal the effects of the changing economy–from manufacturing to services. It also represents to me the stress that lower wages, and job and wage insecurity has on families. It disproportionately effects residents of the central city, limits employment opportunity, and depresses property values. Deindustrialization destabilized the entire community one family at a time. Also notice the graph on incomes–these economic changes have concentrated incomes at the very top, which in turn magnifies the inequality of political power. Now the question that has not gotten enough attention is how did this happen? Is it just globalization? Is it because of supply-side policies? Is it because people just don’t work hard enough anymore? Is it because of tax policy and regulatory policy? There is a truth in all of this somewhere, but if we don’t understand how we got to this point in a city as important and emblematic of the times as Milwaukee than we won’t know what to do to fix the problems.

  • Living in the Redwoods

    it’s not every other country that is being supported.

    it’s the people called “job creators” that are being supported.

    and the jobs they are creating are not being created it’s that they are being moved.

    moved from the U.S. to countries that allow such low wages that outright slavery would be better.

    and this didn’t happen overnight.

    the closing of steel mills was an example of one phase of that.

    and the lesson learned from those closures was that the “job creators” should not tell the truth about why they are moving jobs to other countries.

    in that situation they said that it was cheaper to make steel in other countries.
    this was bad for public relations.

    when the lumber industry closed the mills in Humboldt county they blamed it on the people protesting about the over harvesting of trees in our area.

    when in fact the protestors were supported by the “job creators” so that environmentalists could be the scapegoat for closing the lumber mills.

    and by the way the timber continued to be cut, and shipped overseas without going through the local mills first.

    DO NOT make the mistake of thinking that the %1 is composed of dull witted people that can’t think of ways to get someone else take responsibility for their mercenary actions taken in their lust for money.

    they have successfully convince people that poor people are the reason that the middle class is suffering.

    they have done that job very well.

  • LauraNo

    He was trying to make a case for cutting taxes. It’s the only thing they know or care about.

  • LauraNo

    I assume the fact that studies regularly show that if two people with approximately the same credentials apply for a job and one is white and the other isn’t, the white person will get the call. Same with apartments and loans, etc.explains the disparity.

  • LauraNo

    All the rich people left Milwaukee and moved to Waukesha County, then they found they didn’t like the commute so they put the shops and offices and whatever workplaces they were running out there too, That meant the workers from Milwaukee had to spend $50/ week getting to work, if they managed to get hired after the white kids in Waukesha were. I see in the local newspaper they have cotillions and debutante balls there these days. Seriously. In Wisconsin!

  • Anonymous

    Globalization: is a sophisticated term to confuse the public. It really means that a US manufacture is closed, the pension funds raided leaving the now unemployed workers destitute as well. Then you relocate the jobs to a third world country, where there are no child labor or minimum wage laws. Then you bring the crap they made back to the US and try to sell it to people you have destroyed. The corporation should also join ALEC so you can buy politicians to give you tax breaks for this economic treason, and in some case pay no taxes at all, and actually get millions back in tax refunds like the oil companies. You also can write laws to exempt you from environmental protection, so you can poison the land and water supply and destroy American citizens with poisons from your pollution like the coal strip mining in West Virginia.
    Well, where there is a problem, there is a solution.
    Throw ALEC members out of congress. Give democrats a full majority and give them a chance to fix things. Obama got the Oval Office, but obstructions made sure that no work got done because of the “siesta.” Try to choose women over men, because the women have smaller brains, but they use more of them. Avoid any woman named Michelle or Sarah.
    A dead polluted river in my home town is now crystal clear and alive, so there is hope to revive congress as well.

  • Anonymous

    Vote out all TEA-types and agreeing Republicans and buy American. Dodd-Frank must be strictly enforced. This is what TEA-Republicans are working for.( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/08/gop-wall-street-bill_n_3542999.html ) The next elections will make or break our nation if you stay at home and do nothing. The 2010 Frank-Dodd banking act has placed restrictions Big Banking does not want. TEA-Republicans have this bill in their sights for elimination, de-funding, side-tracking or abridging in every way they can. If you want to bailout more banks and stagnate the economy, go ahead and vote for TEA-Republicans running for office in your state. All and every financial instrument must be regulated, no matter if off-shore or not! Big time lawyers and accountants in collusion with big time lobbyist have amassed huge sums of money to fight or input into unrelated bills wording to circumvent the wishes of the nation. A good example is Gun shot data research. It is tantamount-ly important, for those in office, to read carefully every word of every bill that gets past the House and Senate, and to the president for signing.

  • TommyBoy99

    wow…liberal white guilt and GOPs fault for all of this…what a surprise. Bottom line is the democrats “social engineering” welfare experiment failed, big time. But if you question that throwing millions of dollars at the problem may not be the best solution, your a big or hater. Urban area become the enslaved zoo that the dems wanted, and manufacturing went to cheaper areas….not the GOPs fault. Blame Unions and big Govt

  • TommyBoy99

    please, enough with the race card…20 yrs ago, maybe….but that old excuse is the liberal white guilt feeling that they cant let go. Move “forward’ as the dems say, not backwards

  • TommyBoy99

    Typical liberal nonsense in your thinking….blame unions(dems) with their bloated pensions, double dipping, constant concessions and strikes and bloated pay for non-skilled work…thats why many companies bolted. Obama said he was gonna go after companies who outsourced….Im waiting

  • LauraNo

    You can ignore facts if you like, and I suppose you do but there have been studies and experiments done that prove the racism you all like to pretend doesn’t exit, does still exist. I don’t know what you think you get by denying it but if it feels good, do it I guess. Trayvon wasn’t murdered for walking while black 20 years ago.

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s hubris and cruelty. How cruel are you willing to be to prove how much better you are.

  • T3r1l33

    The war on poverty succeeded until the 1980s when federal and state budget cuts had the predictable effect of increasing poverty. At the same time public investment on education, which is the linchpin to rising out of poverty, started decreasing. Social Security worked in that it raised millions of seniors out of poverty. What has failed is the trickle down economic policies of the last 30 years.

  • Jim Turner

    Will liberals ever acknowledge that single motherhood is not a path to prosperity?

  • Anonymous

    I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank every person who uses the term “liberal” as a catchall to disparage others for any given political point of view. Their continual harpy-like indiscriminate attempts to defame others with this term have taught me to wholly ignore and discard their opinion as worthless. Saves me a great deal of time and serves me well in separating the wheat from the chaff.

  • Anonymous

    It’s pretty unreasonable at this point to believe that the situation as it stands in the US is in any way accidental or even incidental. Where we are now as a nation is the direct result of the path we have chosen to take over the last 30+ years— the time at which those mills and manufacturing plants all shut down (interesting that that event dovetails so well with the rise of nationalistic neo-conservatism, no?)

  • Jim Zirbes

    Will supposed conservatives ever admit what they are doing is not contributing to family stability?

  • Jim Zirbes

    While many conservatives pay lip-service to the holy grail of married man and woman families, their own families have out-of-wedlock births and divorce rates – a top contributor to “single motherhood” – at rates as high – or higher – as those labeled liberals.

  • Jim Zirbes

    As all union members are democrats and liberals. Got it.

  • Jim Zirbes

    Bloated pensions, double-dipping, etc. Sounds horrible. No one should have those middle-class entitlements, huh? Sounds like class warfare and a jealousy mindset to me.

  • Jim Turner

    Conservatives have higher out of wedlock birthrates? Higher than the 73% among blacks? You’re just making stuff up

  • Jim Turner

    We’re going to work. Giving more food stamps to fat people won’t help anything

  • Anonymous

    Yes and let’s not put any of the blame on the CEO who drives the company into the ground and his only concern is what the company looks like on paper to pay out share holders. Really a CEO sound be paid millions.
    Yes that is typical Republican thinking and you wonder why your losing. I know all you say is Obama cheated keep on saying it.
    What do UN informed voters have to lose by voting for Obama?
    Nothing it has already been given away by greedy CEOs just trying to makeva bigger profit. May Mitt Romney could have downsized and outsourced more jobs

  • Anonymous

    Some people will not have a higher education, because their parents will never have the income to help them get there.
    Some young people will never have a life sustaining job. Many will become so angry they will try crime. The cost of one prisoner in prison for a year would put a half dozen students through 4 years of college. Not a bright way to spend tax money. The situation is getting more and more desperate.
    Iraq and Afgan Wars could have paid for all students in college for the next 58 years. That was not a smart investment either.
    Where jobs are scarce, white men are the first choice, then white women, last Blacks. It is not fair. Heck, thin women get better jobs, promotions, and respect over fat women. Don’t bother denying prejudice. It is there.

  • Anonymous

    No, if it is too big to fail, it is a monopoly and needs to be broken up.

  • Anonymous

    I am from New England. The mills, Bates and Pepperrell, moved out when I was a kid, then the shoe shops went. Then the fabric mills went to the South, and shoes to Brazil. Now it is all in China. International trade is good. Being a sucker isn’t so much!

  • Angelina Thompson

    Jim, not all blacks are liberal. Try another argument.

  • Jim Turner

    No, but they are the issue in this story whether you admit it or not

  • Angelina Thompson

    1) Decline in manufacturing; 2) Drop in median income; 3) Income inequality; 4) Income security values; 5) Working poor; 6) Racial Disparities in employment rates; Those are the issues in this story that I read, nothing about liberal/conservative blacks or even “out of wedlock birthrates” for any racial group. Try again.

  • moderator

    Jim, you are off-topic, please keep comments directly related to the seven charts above.

    Thank You,
    Sean @ Moyers

  • NotARedneck

    This is the problem in most US cities. No public transit (or not affordable) from where the poor are forced to live to where the jobs have been relocated to. This gives even the lazy, uneducated children of the wealthy a tremendous advantage over even the hardest working poor youth.

    The US has a large Third World sector within its borders. Right wing racists are working hard to keep it that way. This is how they finally have won the Civil War.

  • NotARedneck

    “their own families have out-of-wedlock births and divorce rates ”

    Quite true. I know many women from wealthy families who are single mothers. The only difference is that they are then lavishly supported by their parents.

    It has been said to me, “I can’t imagine how anyone (her daughter) could have such poor judgment selecting men!” Surely that includes the underclass of women.

    This is a “problem” that crosses all income groups. In my opinion, it is an unintended consequence of the women’s movement – women who were told and believed that they could have it all. Typically, they start with the “must have” physical attributes in a partner and never get to what is really important. I’ve seen that a lot over recent decades.

  • NotARedneck

    Actually, the people who they call liberal are probably the real conservatives, people who would do what is really necessary to balance the budget while putting people back to work in the productive economy.

    People who call themselves “conservative” are in reality tax evading right wing trash who use racism and bigotry to game the political system and line their pockets.

  • Eric Kantor

    Why does anyone vote for Republicans?

  • Eric Kantor

    Banksters and Big Oil allowed to break laws and supporting a military surveillance complex around the world is not a path to prosperity.

  • Anonymous

    . . . . . . OK, 99.9 % . . . . . But they vote 2-3 times @ !

  • Anonymous

    Sean, it would appear Jim Turner WAS on topic as he was replying to a statement made by Jim Zirbes, and yet I notice no warning to him ! . . . . Stop playing favorites and letting your obviously slanted views guide you.

  • moderator

    To All In the Community,

    Before commenting, please read the comment policy closely.

    thanks,
    Sean @ Moyers

  • Anonymous

    How nice for you. I thought you had expired or been eliminated forever, but look at you now. You have found a perfect site for you with Bill Moyers. LOL.