Poverty numbers are a wake-up call for all of us
We’re number 4! It’s not a great place to be in the NFC Northern Division and it’s nothing to brag about here. The 2009 American Community Survey shows Milwaukee has the fourth highest percentage (27%) of its citizens living at or below the poverty level. Only Detroit (36.4%), Cleveland (35%) and Buffalo (28.8%) have higher rates of poverty.
Female heads of household with children under 18 are most likely to live in poverty (49.1% according to the report) and almost 40% of all Milwaukee’s children live below the line. In addition, 15.3% of Milwaukeeans are living without health insurance, exacerbating the poverty problem.
I have now personally lived in two of the poorest cities in the nation – here and Detroit.
I lived in metro Detroit in the mid-80s. The city itself was and still is a disaster. Unemployment is rampant; many of its neighborhoods are burned out, abandoned and leveled with only a small strip downtown along the river occupied and considered safe. You could definitely tell when you crossed from one of the suburbs – Dearborn, Hamtramack, Grosse Point – into the city. The tone, the feel and the appearance drastically changed from bright and hopeful to dark and hopeless. Many people in Detroit are throwing their shoulders into turning the city around, but in the meantime it’s still the place some of the most desperate people in America call home.
There are parts of our own community that have that same feeling. The despair of unemployment, homelessness and poverty is palpable and, unfortunately, spreading into many areas of our community where it never was before.
But it gets worse. Immediately upon release of the survey results, the two most powerful men in Milwaukee – Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Scott Walker – began the finger-pointing. I know, we’re in the middle of a hotly-contested gubernatorial race, but instead of accepting some responsibility, they both came out swinging at each other, instead of at the real problem.
According to Walker, Milwaukee’s poverty rate is Barrett’s fault because he follows “anti-business” policies which have contributed to the poverty levels in Milwaukee and across the state. He then promised to get government out of the way to bring 250,000 jobs to Wisconsin.
To both of them I say: Stop. Stop the childish bickering. We have an unemployment rate of 8.5% in Milwaukee, and if you’re an African-American man you’re more likely to be in prison or jail than working.
We have the worst reading scores in the nation for African American fourth graders. We have one of the highest dropout rates. So why are we surprised we’re one of the poorest cities in the nation?
What kind of future does Milwaukee have when its children can’t read, let alone graduate from high school? Way back in the day, before the recession of ’81, you could get by and even get ahead with an unskilled factory job at A.O. Smith, Harnischfeger or Briggs and Stratton. Three recessions later, many are lucky if they can pull in $10 an hour with a college degree.
Michael Bonds, President of the Milwaukee School Board, says those poor education scores and graduation rates are affected by the poverty, crime and dysfunction in our city. But it goes both ways. It’s difficult to climb out of poverty if you can’t read; crime is an easy option if you’re hungry and need cash; dysfunction is the norm if it’s all you’ve known.
This poverty news is another wake-up call for our community. While there are dozens of community-based agencies and thousands of local volunteers already hard at work fighting the issues of poverty, crime and education in Milwaukee, the majority of people not affected directly by this epidemic still turn a blind eye. But it’s time for the 73% of us who live above the poverty line to start working to pull the others out of the hole. It won’t happen without all of us; it can’t help but happen if we’re all in.
From an education standpoint, we need to insist all children have confident, talented teachers. We need to insist they have the necessary books and supplies to learn. We need to insist that they are exposed to not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but also the arts and physical activity. We need to make sure every student in this city gets the education they need to break the cycle of poverty.
Our future depends on it.