Milwaukee needs a good kick in the a$$

By - Feb 28th, 2011 04:00 am
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It’s been my goal as managing partner of ThirdCoast Digest to provide the kind of unbiased news coverage that allows readers to think for themselves. But news and opinion are not one in the same, and today TCD offers viewpoints from two very different sides of the budget deficit issue. This from first-time contributor Dan Knauss.

Widely decried as an attack on the middle class, the working man, ancient right, sacred custom and great progressive ideals, Governor Walker’s budget “reform” bill is indeed a piece of fiscal revanchism. It would take away collective bargaining for certain public sector unions and lay the groundwork for selling off heating, cooling, and power plants in non-transparent, no-bid deals. That said, it has undeniable appeal to some middle and working class Wisconsinites who don’t think they owe their life, liberty and happiness to public employee unions.

At a time when experts argue over whether Milwaukee job loss rates are just pretty bad or really terrible, Milwaukee County is close to failing under the weight of its debt obligations on employee benefit funds. The public school district, which has failed in almost every other way it possibly can fail, will soon fail financially, even without Walker and Associates defunding it. The police and firefighters, whom Governor Walker has promised not to touch, are a budgetary millstone for the City of Milwaukee: A full $5 out of $6 dollars that the city spends go toward wages and benefits, and $2 of the $3 dollars spent on wages and benefits goes to cops and firefighters.

For schools and police, Milwaukee residents and homeowners pay more for less, if not worse, service. It is a problem austerity can’t solve. Even in good times, Milwaukeeans pay a premium to support mediocrity, failure and a lack of accountability.

Sociological and historical excuses are often used as reasons to keep paying failure forward. But it’s well known what happened to the old happy days in so many cities like Milwaukee. Unlike Detroit, Milwaukee had a bad but not devastating population loss following civil rights struggles, race riots and the loss of good-paying unskilled manufacturing jobs.

Losing 100,000 people between 1960 and 1980 was no walk in the park, but the numbers have come back up since then. Unfortunately, the costs have come up too; but the jobs have not, and a “minority-majority” status does not connote the things today that Martin Luther King hoped it would. At least not for the fourth poorest city in the nation.

What is uniquely depressing about Milwaukee’s decline is that it seems to be so self-inflicted. One example of this stands out above all others: Every major ethnic group, but most of all white Milwaukee, has responded to the challenges of our times by staying out of school.

Truancy rates in Milwaukee are terrible, but that’s not what I’m referring to. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looked at census data last year and discovered that Milwaukee residents are far less likely to have finished a post-secondary degree than their counterparts in any of the nation’s fifty largest cities.

This statistic can’t be blamed on the usual suspects of race and poverty, even though race, poverty and lack of educational attainment correlate very strongly. Far below the average of black and Hispanic residents, white Milwaukee is a whopping 15 percentage points behind its peers, in contrast to a six point lag for African American residents. This education gap has set the city so far behind that it needs 36,000 people with college degrees just to become average.

“Average” seems to be an impossibly high goal because Milwaukee actually gains fewer than 1,000 degree holders each year despite having plenty of colleges and universities, including many catering specifically to poor, older adult and vocationally-focused students. And graduates leave the city at an even greater rate than in a typical state afflicted with brain drain, probably because the jobs aren’t here.

When families and businesses are thinking about moving to the metro area, education is a primary reason they opt for the suburbs or farther afield, and it is the most legitimate one. It’s never nice to see the often snotty and prejudicial ways this choice can be expressed, but the true lack of quality schools and an educated workforce doesn’t offer much in the way of a meaningful retort.

Given the anti-education ethos of the “genuine American city” (as the previous mayor’s administration tried to brand it), Milwaukee appears not as a bunch of scrappy underdogs to cheer for as we lift a glass to unions protecting jobs from China, India or Kentucky. Rather, it looks like it’s too full of underachievers who think a high school education is enough. Who could be giving them that idea?

The metropolitan business community often refers to Milwaukee’s “lack of an entrepreneurial culture.” Others, in informal settings, bluntly describe Milwaukee as “anti-entrepreneurial,” make the connection with the socialist past, and mention unions. This, too, is fair. Breaking with that past is a necessary and belated process that can’t be pretty or nice. After years of watching failure and hearing excuses, I don’t care if it’s dirty, ugly, mean and unfair, because Milwaukee already is that way — especially for kids, especially for poorer people.

I know I’m not the only one who knows a stereotypical cop who can tell you, to the day, not just when their next vacation is but when they will retire and exactly what amount they have coming to them. Some will happily share their disgust for the city residency that’s required of them too, and let you know how they will be peeling out when their last day comes. I had a friend and neighbor who was that type of cop, and his hatred for public transit and sense of pity for me as a bus rider with kids in a public school made an impression on me. He had done better for his kids, in his mind (and probably most people’s).

I also know teachers and other city and county workers who are comparatively happier than my cop friend living where they do. But they balk at the schools above the elementary grades because that is where good sense does say, “time to get out.” They are often quite honest about how their union resists reform and throws better educators under the wheels of its seniority system when cuts have to be made. They excuse their complicity and shrug off responsibility in the usual way — it’s their job. Of all the things they have reasons to protest, it’s the threat to their union’s power that has them camping out in the capitol. For the children.

I’m not saying these aren’t good, conscientious people and public servants trying to do do their best. I’m saying this is their best, and to a good extent, Milwaukee is as good as they are. Not very good, but good enough for government work.

Under every administration, Wisconsin’s capitol and the rest of the state’s policy toward its biggest city has been to keep it disempowered as a taxing authority and shorted on school funding and shared revenue. Governor Walker is taking this “screw Milwaukee” game to a new level with his budget bill. At the same time, more funding will not fix the problems the city has, not even the financial ones. This is why I can’t muster any sympathy for the unions the governor is going after, and I only wish he would go after them all equally. Maybe kicking the legs out from under the last vestiges of old entitlements will actually do it some good in the long run. Maybe even save the city from itself.

Categories: Commentary, Politics

0 thoughts on “Milwaukee needs a good kick in the a$$”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Dan! It’s about time this Madison flap was put in perspective.

  2. Anonymous says:


    This is a poignant critique that reflects some thoughts I’ve been having lately about the city. My wife and I made the choice to stay and buy a home in the city, and we love our neighborhood. But it’s increasingly obvious that the “hip urban” tide of the go-go aughties is over, and most the the city isn’t any better off than it was before the flood of cash. Minus a few new (non–productive) buildings, Milwaukee is the same relatively stagnant place it was. I love the city, but it’s increasingly feeling like a relationship based on myth rather than reality…..

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Judith! Thanks–it’s a perspective, for whatever it’s worth.

    Chris, unfortunately we know the feeling and have gone through that whole process too.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dan, I can’t help it… for just a moment there you sounded exactly like Red Foreman from “That 70s Show.” Seriously though, well thought out and presented, as usual. But I really think that what we’re seeing here is bigger than the unions, just as what was going on in the Depression was bigger than the unions. It’s another battle in the class warfare that flairs up periodically to maintain the precarious balance between misery and greed. When those horrible conditions can be addressed by empathy and intelligence, the flair-ups can at least be postponed and perhaps most of a generation can enjoy prosperity and peace. Those sweet times are excruciatingly rare, but must always be worked for and hoped for and sought after without ceasing. Amen. And the next person who says anything about Kool Aid gets a kick in the ass. I went to CHURCH, dammit!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I love Red! Just not on flags, T-shirts or states.

    Yes it’s about power and grabbing it, but I don’t think there has ever been or is now much hope for empathy and intelligence directing who will serve and who will eat. I think the best that can be hoped for is real fights from sufficiently mobilized interests so that it all gets dialectically haggled out somehow.

    The non-union middle class really is not a smart player yet, but there is no reason why we should not take the low-hanging fruit pushed to us in the form of public sector power and funding since. “Don’t take it because the Koch’s are selling it” isn’t really a strong argument from people whose unions are based on asking “what have you done for me lately?”

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