Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Dumping on Milwaukee

How a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter distorted data to bad rap the city.

By - Jul 10th, 2012 10:17 am

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.”

Milwaukee, by contrast, isn’t even mentioned in the study’s narrative. Not once. And in the study’s ranking of  the 20 cities with the highest levels of economic segregation in 2007 (the most recent year for which data was available), Milwaukee ranks better than 18 of those cities. Not great news, but far short of what Rohde needs to make his case.

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.

Categories: Murphy's Law

16 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Dumping on Milwaukee”

  1. Nate says:

    Thanks for the critique on the Atlantic article. However, please be careful with how you’re explaining the statistics. You’re mistaking cities for metro areas.

    The Times article is based on data from Brookings. Brookings keeps updated demographic and socioeconomic data on metro areas as well as their cities and suburbs. The latest data, from 2010, indicates that 31.7% of Milwaukee metro area residents (age 25 or older) have a bachelor’s degree, which ranks metro Milwaukee 34th out of the 100 largest metro areas.

    The CITY of Milwaukee has an educational attainment of just 21.4%, ranking 76th out of 100, or “behind three-quarters of America’s cities.” The metro area is boosted by the educational attainment of Milwaukee suburbs (37.3%, #9 of 100). Insofar as there’s a valid story of segregation in metro Milwaukee, you can stick segregation by educational attainment right up there, at least in terms of the city/suburb divide.

  2. Bruce Murphy says:

    Yes, Nate, I’m aware that the Tines stats are for metro areas. And of course the City of Milwaukee has a lower education attainment. and I’m sure if you looked at the other 100 metro areas examined, they typically have less college educated (and more poverty) than the surrounding suburbs. It’s a uniform comparison which shows two-thirds of metro areas have a lower percentage of college-educated residents than Milwaukee.

  3. Nate says:

    “It’s a uniform comparison which shows two-thirds of metro areas have a lower percentage of college-educated residents than Milwaukee.” Agreed, metro Milwaukee is holding its own in educational attainment.

    “I’m sure if you looked at the other 100 metro areas examined, they typically have less college educated (and more poverty) than the surrounding suburbs.” I would have thought so too, but as it turns out that’s not the case, at least according to 2010 data. If you use the Brookings link above, you can look at the college attainment by cities and by suburbs and compare them fairly easily. Out of 100 metros, only 49 had suburbs with educational attainment higher than that of the cities. The difference in Milwaukee (city: 21.4%, suburbs 37.3%, for a difference of 15.9 percentage points) is the 5th largest disparity out of the 100 metro areas, behind Hartford, Bridgeport, Detroit, and Cleveland. When it comes to socioeconomic data, the difference between city-level and metro-level is generally far higher for Milwaukee than for other metros. And this is exactly why it’s so important to be careful when discussing cities and metro areas in Milwaukee. They are not at all interchangeable, and Milwaukee is one of the metros where this is most true.

  4. Bruce Murphy says:

    I would just note that in both the Stanford study used by Atlantic and the college data, you’re looking at metro-area figures, which is I why I looked at both studies together. As I noted, Milwaukee still has huge challenges, and your unpacking of the Brookings data is quite instructive in that regard.

  5. Nate says:

    Thanks, and by the way I love your work.

  6. Stevemanowicz says:

    A nerdy curiosity about urban rankings led us both to the same place: the Brookings report that served as the basis for the NYT story on college grads fleeing places like Dayton. To get out of the summer heat one day, I worked up a Tumblr post featuring one of the Brookings graphics marked up to show how Milwaukee stacks up (not that badly, it turns out) against other Midwestern metros and some from the east and mid-Atlantic as well.

  7. Jim Bouman says:

    Interesting discussion. I cannot, however, get out of my head what I encountered on a quick trip to Detroit on Friday. I’d heard of and read about the low state of the once-booming Motor City. But I hadn’t been there in 25 years.
    Simply beyond belief, the kind and amount of utter ruin visible from inner city streets to tony suburban enclaves. Beautiful brick colonials, classic craftsman bungalows, block after block, overgrown and disappearing behind curtains of overgrown vines and blowing trash. A dead tree on one of the main drags had fallen across the sidewalk and 10 ft. into the street. My friend said it been down for a month and the only attention was some yellow tape and a flasher barrel (not flashing).
    In parts of the city, with wide urban thoroughfares, even the traffic lights were not operating. Not much traffic. My friend said–in a burst of gallows humor–that was, one sense, an improvement. In faster, prosperous times there had always been a problem of crashing red lights. Now. every driver stops at the intersection, looks both ways and moves cautiously through.
    Some places have palpable evidence of decline/decay/destruction/despair more serious and foreboding what this debate details.

  8. Dean Deardurff says:

    Only been in Milwaukee 4 years. What is it rank? 7th of one of the worst cities in America….It’s hard to go anyplace around this city and not see a decline and deteriation of neighborhoods within Milwaukee…. But thats to be expected under the direction of the polictical system…..Godd Job

  9. TBM says:

    I was going to comment exactly like Nate. I used to live in the Metro area of Milwaukee (actually most of my life). Milwaukee itself is pathetic. The real estate taxes are high. The school system is a disaster. The inner city area has crime so bad, you would never go there unless you had to. The homes are in rough shape. The only “nicer” areas of the actual city of Milwaukee are some downtown condos (newer) and some outlying areas. I am not sure this is still the case but Milwaukee firefighters and policy were required to live in the city itself so the city had pockets of some nicer areas due to this requirement.

    The Metro area is actually a very nice place to live and has lots to offer the middle class. Education is better and real estate taxes are not quite as high. The crime is less. The only reason I left was the weather and the city of Milwaukee and the Metro area can’t change that!!

    Don’t confuse the metro area with the actual city of Milwaukee!!!!

  10. Dave Reid says:

    @TBM I won’t deny that Milwaukee has its problems (most cities do), but don’t worry I’ll never “confuse the metro area with the actual city of Milwaukee!!!!” Yeah I’ll pick the City of Milwaukee any day of the week, there are in fact multiple great neighborhoods to live in Milwaukee.

  11. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Great assessment. Have you sent it to Rohde?

  12. Jason Wittek says:

    To hear people bang on Milwaukee, bothers me to no end. It means you have a limited understanding of suburbanization, deindustrialization, globalization, or residential segregation. And yes, downtown Milwaukee is on the rise, like many other downtown cities across the country where the educated are moving to. But suburban poverty across the country is on the rise also. Meaning, as downtown Milwaukee continues to thrive, poverty will continue, just somewhere else. There are global macroeconomic forces at work right now shaping all cities. Soon, most suburbs will be home to more poverty, and the real problem of inequality will just have shifted. The City of Milwaukee doesn’t cause all of these problems!

  13. jeff jordan says:

    In recent conversations about this city, (The largest one being Historic MIlwaukee’s panel discussion series at the Pabst Theater.) it is becoming clear that any discussion of Milwaukee has to start with the detractors talking points of poverty, education and decay.
    Can we stipulate to those issues and move on about what is good and I suspect always will be, about this city. Our stock of historic buildings that are in use and good repair, our universities and schools of advanced education are top notch, and as Bruce pointed out our percentage of residents with college degrees.
    We have one of the greatest natural resources o our doorstep that provides fresh water and endless opportunity for relaxation and entertainment.
    The arts community in this city is vital, talented and growing.
    There are powerful forces that are attempting to turn the negatives into positives. Milwaukee, the city not the metro area, has to help itself. It can’t wait for a lifeline from Madison because we all know that is not going to happen. The first thing we can do is insist on talking about the positives while we work to turn around the negatives.

  14. Stevemanowicz says:

    “Out of 100 metros, only 49 had suburbs with educational attainment higher than that of the cities. The difference in Milwaukee (city: 21.4%, suburbs 37.3%, for a difference of 15.9 percentage points) is the 5th largest disparity out of the 100 metro areas, behind Hartford, Bridgeport, Detroit, and Cleveland.”

    In two compact sentences, Nick begins revealing quite a lot, including a) just how outdated classic notions have grown of cities struggling in the shadows of their fortunate suburbs, and b) how much some classic struggling city-affluent suburb disparities nevertheless cling to Milwaukee.

    To better understand the first point (and to some degree, the second), it’s worth considering how rarely metro areas in large swaths of this country — particularly the Sun Belt — fit the mold that still comes to mind around here: a big, old diverse city hemmed in by suburbs, many of them affluent and homogeneous. Whereas the city of Milwaukee has been locked at 91 square miles since the state legislature reined in its annexation powers in the 1950s, the central cities in regions such as Houston, Phoenix and Nashville are mammoth entities at 656, 516 and 502 square miles respectively. Louisville clocks in at 399, Austin at 297 and Charlotte at 243. In other word, these cities are filled with huge newer developed stretches that would be positioned as suburbs in northern metros such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

    Opportunity and social problems tend to be distributed differently in these new-style metros too. The main city is more likely to be associated with dependable services, shorter commutes and solid schools. With some exceptions, beyond its far reaches, suburbs and exurbs are places of cheap land, tract housing and reduced services — more often backwaters than country-club communities. In a similar way, social problems tend to be less concentrated in the center: think the abandoned strip-mall parking lots of “Cops” not the tenements of “Mean Streets.” And college degrees? From Charlotte to Nashville, Louisville and Phoenix, those in the large central city are more likely to have them than their suburban counterparts. (In Houston, it’s essentially even and the pattern also holds in metros such as Atlanta and Orlando, where the central cities are much smaller geographically.)

    All of this makes it more difficult to find apples-to-apples comparisons for cities such as Milwaukee. This region’s city-suburbs disparity looks more familiar — but still more pronounced — when viewed alongside those of cities with similar characteristics such as Philadelphia and Baltimore (where compact but relatively high population central cities anchor their regions). Curiously, compact cities such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati that have lost a huge share of their population now rank better at the city level, but rank rather low in college grads at the regional level. St. Louis — where the central city accounts for a paltry 11.3% of metro population compared to 38% for the city of Milwaukee — comes close to fitting this pattern too.

    As for those high-growth metros of the South with their big, sprawling central cities, they often lag at the metro level in terms of their college attainment — Houston, Orlando, Nashville, Louisville and Phoenix all have a lower share of grads than metro Milwaukee, (Charlotte is about on par while Atlanta is better-ranking). But many of them excel or are at least above average when it comes to generating or attracting African-American college grads. That’s a particular problem for Milwaukee (ranked 80th at the city level and 87th at the metro level), the impact of which is felt far beyond metropolitan rankings.

  15. PaulS says:

    Despite all this ‘bad news’ about the City vs. the ‘burbs, there is reported a small, perhaps trending, uptick in City population at the loss of the ‘burb populations–people are moving back to the City.

    One must be alert to the false, talk radio fodder about how bad MKE “really is.” While MPS is underpar, MPS schools continue to earn state and national awards that none of the ‘burb schools have. While property taxes may be higher than the ‘burbs, so are the benefits they cover: an expanding (and eventually cash-positive) trash/recycling effort, nascent interest in expanding our bicycle infrastructure. The corporate media meme “City bad/’burbs good” is largely supported by creating a circular argument: “City bad because cities are bad/’burbs good because they are good”–which we commonly see in the City/metro distinction.

    What’s most important here is the pseudo-science misapplication of statistical data by Rohde and the constant incompetent misrepresentation of data by our local corporate media: it’s economic propaganda and it’s working very well.

    Part of the reason this propaganda works so well is that it takes advantage of MKE’s cultural phenomenon of constant self-deprecation; we seem to have mistaken ‘snatching defeatism from the jaws of victory’ as a categorical imperative. As a former Clevelander, I can attest to the fact that, even when true, an out of towner’s yakyak about how bad he thinks CLE is might land someone on their keester with a fervent offer to beat feet the hell back to their watered lawn wasteland, or in the parlance of that town “eff off, moron.”

    Time for MKE to put away the mohair, get a lot more brassy, and tell the Rohdes and the JS Communications of the world where to get off.

  16. getch says:

    I agree with the trend of people in the Burbs moving to the city. I am a young professional and was lucky enough to have some money saved and i bought a condo little over 3 years ago downtown. I would have to estimate that 80-90% of the residents, were Burb people. Main reasons: able to walk everywhere and didn’t need all the space. The majority of these Burb people are still working and not retired. Biggest compliant, taxes.

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