Dumping on Milwaukee
How a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter distorted data to bad rap the city.
Last December The Atlantic did a gloomy story portraying Milwaukee as the nation’s worst example of a decline in the middle class. It’s an alarming story, the sort that can indelibly brand a city nationally, yet quite misleading. Milwaukee certainly has problems, but a number of cities are in far worse shape — a point reinforced by a recent article in the New York Times. So how then did The Atlantic and its Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter David Rohde err so badly?
Rohde was inspired by a November study by researchers at Stanford University which looked at the growth of “residential segregation of families by income.” Far and away the nation’s worst city in that regard was Philadelphia. “Philadelphia was the 43rd most (economically) segregated metropolitan area in 1970 and the 3rd most segregated by 2007,” the study notes. “In 1970 only 16 percent of Philadelphia families lived in poor or affluent neighborhoods; in 2007, 43 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.”
Rohde was apparently inspired by a later table which shows Milwaukee ranks second (behind Philadelphia) in the growth of economic segregation from 1970 to 2007. One can argue with the formula used to make this conclusion: the study’s statistics, after all, show the proportion of residents living in poor or affluent neighborhoods increased by 23.5 percent in Milwaukee during this time, which was below six other cities where the percentage grew anywhere from 24.1 percent to 30 percent.
But it hardly matters because this study isn’t measuring the decline of the middle class anyway. It is measuring the growth in economic isolation, a related but quite different phenomenon. Yet Rohde somehow decides to use this study to make Milwaukee the poster child for the decline in the middle class. In reality, the Stanford study doesn’t attempt to measure which cities have lost the most middle class families. It measures which cities have the most economic isolation and finds 18 others are currently worse off than Milwaukee.
Which still leaves the key question: why did Rohde jump on Milwaukee rather than Philadelphia — the city singled out in the Stanford study? Maybe he wanted a nice heartland town. More likely, he couldn’t get the data he needed from Philadelphia.
The Stanford study, you see, lumped together the very poor and the affluent, leaving Rohde with no ability to separate out the growth in poverty or affluence in a given city, and thereby illustrate the decline in the middle class. But helpful Milwaukee was able to provide this data.
According to Ken Yunker, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, Rohde called and mentioned the Stanford study and that “it didn’t analyze how the percent in each category (poor and affluent) had changed.” So Yunker’s staff went to work crunching census data and provided Rohde with what he needed: they found that between 1970 and 2007 the percent of Milwaukee households who were poor rose from 23 to 31 percent, while the percent who were affluent grew from 22 to 27 percent.
How does this compare to other cities in America? We don’t know, because the Stanford study offers no such data on other cities and SEWRPC only looked at Milwaukee. So the entire story spotlighting Milwaukee as the nation’s worst case for middle class decline — with cherry-picked quotes from locals validating its woebegone theme — is based on a comparison between Milwaukee and… no other city.
The recent Times analysis measured cities in a different way, considering their relative percentage of college graduates. The thesis was simple: as cities “try to reinvent themselves after losing large swaths of their manufacturing sectors, they are discovering… one of the most critical ingredients” is the supply of college graduates. Cities with a higher percentage of college grads tended to have a lower unemployment rate, the story noted.
Back in 1970 (once again that same baseline year), there was a small difference from city to city in the percent of college grads. Not any more. The Times looked at the nation’s top 100 cities and found the share of residents with a college degree ranged from about 47 percent in the top-ranked Washington D.C. metro area to just 15 percent in the Bakersfield metro area, which ranked dead last.
Milwaukee? The city was ranked 33rd, ahead of two-thirds of America’s cities. Exactly 31.7 percent of residents here have a college degree, compared to a 32 percent average for the top 100 cities. (The national average was jacked up by the nation’s top eight cities, where more than 40 percent of residents have a college degree; that includes Madison, ranked sixth with more than 43 percent of residents holding a college degree.)
None of this is intended to downplay the problems of poverty and unemployment in Milwaukee. Like many Rustbelt cities, Milwaukee faces big challenges. But it is not alone — and hardly the nation’s leader — in that regard.