Patti Wenzel

Poverty numbers are a wake-up call for all of us

By - Oct 1st, 2010 04:00 am

Poverty is all around us. Photo by CGAphoto from Flickr.

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.

Barrett said it is Walker who has never been interested in addressing the poverty issues in our community. He promised he will bring new jobs to the city and state, which will alleviate poverty.

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.

Categories: Commentary

0 thoughts on “Poverty numbers are a wake-up call for all of us”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article Patti!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I could not agree more with this thoughtful and impassioned plea for common sense and engagement. The question is how do we get past years of animosity, racism and ignorance to a solution.
    I often tell my friends who reside in the no tension zone. (north of Fond Du Lac). That a desperate and uneducated thug, who has decided that lacking a job, theft and drugs are the best alternative, can get into a stolen car drive to Green Bay, hold up a gas station, and be back home for supper in about four hours. I further point out that we really don’t know if the final step in a cure for cancer may be residing in the mind of a young black girl born in poverty and that we’ll wait longer for that final step if we don’t make sure she gets the proper education.
    Patty, you are so right we all have to see that our children are all educated. but that is only one leg on our road to recovery from this self inflicted state of affairs. The other two are Jobs and transit. What’s lacking? Leadership!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Patti, sometimes the truth hurts. Nobody can argue with facts and statistics. We need to ask ourselves one question, are we better off now than we were 4 years ago? Bet 73% say NO!

  4. Anonymous says:

    It’s hard to address the problem if we can’t determine who is at fault. You tie poverty rates to education. There is certainly a correlation. However, you failed to note that Milwaukee is among the worst job creators in the nation according to the Center for Economic Development. It is the job of the mayor to spur job creation in the community, which Mayor Barrett has not done. And on the education front, Barrett opposes lifting caps on Choice School – schools that have graduation rates far above MPS.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Don’t you just love Walker supporters when the post on-line comments. Reality and logic be damned, its all the fault of the Democrats. Well things are bad in globally, did Tom Barret cause that? I bet the global economic meltdown is highly related to the actions of the Bush Administration. Walker was co-chair of the Bush Wisconsin campaign and is a true believer in the historically disproved economic policies of that administration; wake up and look who has been hitting you with that 2×4 before you vote.

    Yes we have poverty in Milwaukee, but the concentration of poverty is directly related to the lack of suburban multifamily housing, and the inability of urban poor to get to suburban jobs using public transit. The discriminatory suburban housing patterns and the reductions in public transit should be at the top of the problem list and probably is not because it is appears to be, and is, a race problem. Education suffers because of the concentration of poverty.

    Break up the concentrated poverty and I guarantee that education will improve. Education can not and will not be fixed until we fix our regional propensity to ghettoize people based on class, skin-color and national origin.

  6. Anonymous says:

    completely agree

  7. Anonymous says:

    Patti….great article…I just finished and I am quite impressed…I agree with all of the points you made..I am officially a fan…

  8. Anonymous says:

    Poverty is a national issue. It is on the rise. The real percentage is lagging because of Federal
    agencies lack the ability or will to collect and evaluate real time data. The US JOB SHORTAGE
    is the major component in this problem. Unemployment statistics from the BLS is only a small piece of the puzzle. In a poll, a whooping 85% of college students expect to return home once they gradate because they can not find work. No doubt they will be the best educated hamburger flippers this country has ever seen. Do you want fries with that degree?

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