Dan Shafer

SDC seeks answers to Milwaukee’s “poverty problem”

By - Nov 14th, 2011 04:00 am

As the Great Recession drags on, poverty in the United States continues to spread. Recent studies have begun to shine a light on the effects of the current economic climate on Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, since 2007, the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by 2.6 percentage points, from 12.5 to 15.1, with 2010 marking the third consecutive year of increase. That means that in the U.S., 49.1 million people – or one in six – lived in poverty.

Photos from the SDC.

A new study by the Brookings Institution reveals that the city of Milwaukee ranks 21st out of 100 surveyed cities for concentrated poverty, or high poverty populations in a smaller than average area. In some areas of the city, the rate tops 40 percent, a 5.6 percent increase from 2000. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee’s poverty rate climbed from 27 to 29.5 percent in 2010, while the statewide poverty rate rose from 12.4 to 13.2 percent. In those areas, nearly one in three Milwaukeeans lives below the poverty line.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the Social Development Commission (SDC) held its 5th annual symposium on poverty at the Italian Community Center. MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton and Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Family Services Eloise Anderson were the symposium’s keynote speakers.

The SDC provides a variety of services to individuals in need, including energy assistance, employment programs through W-2, family assistance and Head Start early childhood education.

“Oftentimes people know us from energy assistance or Head Start and not necessarily as the SDC,” said CEO Deborah Blanks. “We’re partners with more than 200 organizations.”

MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton.

The event has evolved over time. “The key,” said Blanks, “is to have a conversation with people from different sectors and from the community.

“[This year], what we did was really try to pull from across the deck so it’s not just non-profits; it’s foundations, it’s corporations, it’s government.”

Dave Celata, Intergovernmental Affairs and Research Manager at the SDC, oversees much of the content for the annual symposium. He voiced this year’s top priority.

“We were really concerned with the budget cuts that have been proposed at all levels of government, and the impact they would have on the nonprofit sector, specifically the poverty reduction infrastructure in metro Milwaukee.”

“When you look at the consistent erosion of social well-being,” said Celata, “there is a need to really focus on innovation.”

Focusing on children in need

Among the more alarming statistics from the 2010 census is the rise in poverty among children in Milwaukee, which increased from 39.4 to 46.1 percent. Its effects are being felt in the Milwaukee Public School system.

“This conversation is long overdue,” said Superintendent Thornton, during his morning speech.

Thornton spoke about the many challenges relating to poverty that affect student achievement at MPS. More than 3,100 MPS students are homeless, said Thornton, and more than 80 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced lunch at the school cafeteria. The poverty seen in the schools has other effects, too, as an estimated 30 percent of students have never seen a dentist, and many students do not have access to eyeglasses.

Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Family Services Eloise Anderson

Thornton also had positive news to share, as attendance increased and suspensions decreased during the most recent school year. Thornton is optimistic about programs like the Transition Intervention Experience Center for problematic middle school students and college access centers, which Thornton hopes to have in every community.

The SDC has long supported the district’s efforts. “We have a partnership with MPS that deals with children with disabilities and children with special needs. We also have an MPS staff person on our board,” said Blanks.

One issue of particular concern to Blanks is student mobility.

“Research shows that sometimes families move three, four, or five times every school year. Every time they move, they take a child out of one school and put them in another. You not only impact that child negatively, but you impact the school and the classroom they are leaving as well.”

Challenges for families was a primary concern for Anderson. Her keynote address explored other contributing causes to poverty, most notably the relationship between marriage and unemployment. According to a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, married couples dipped below half of Milwaukee households for the first time ever in 2010.

“Father loss is a huge loss to children,” said Anderson, who explained that children in one-parent families are more likely to end up in juvenile detention centers, while children raised in marriage are less likely to be in poverty. Children growing up without their fathers are also subjected to higher rates of physical and emotional abuse.

“We can’t get them out of poverty while they’re in pain,” she said.

Anderson also stressed the importance of technical education, explaining that educators and students need real experience in factories and other blue collar workplaces to gain a better sense of what a good technical education offers.

Innovative new strategies

Public-private partnerships, often known as the “fourth sector,” were also high on Wednesday’s list, as was efficiency.

Celata said that fourth-sector legislation has sprouted up in other parts of the country over the past few years, but has not yet made its way to Wisconsin.

“It’s something that should be explored because there is unknown potential there, especially when we’re looking at these traditional resources dwindling; this could be a way to address community needs,” said Celata.

Walnut Way Conservation Corp is a local example of  the fourth sector model. The organization started a for-profit arm called the Milwaukee Craftsman Guild in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of the city. The goal is to enhance the capacity of skilled craftsman in areas like Lindsay Heights to start their own businesses.

The SDC’s fight against poverty continues year round. The program employs more than 450 people and serves 80,000 people living in poverty. More information about the symposium can be found at the SDC’s website, where an electronic guide to the symposium will soon be available.

Categories: Economy, Urban Ideas

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