Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes
Op Ed

Too Many Young People Leaving Wisconsin

So how can we make this state a place of opportunity?

By - Jan 9th, 2018 10:42 am

Two Men and a Truck. Photo by Xnatedawgx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Two Men and a Truck. Photo by Xnatedawgx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Our state deserves to be the best. I was born and raised here, in Milwaukee’s poorest and the nation’s most incarcerated zip code. After college, I decided to come home to my city, because I believe in Wisconsin’s collective potential.

I often ask myself, how can we be better? This is why I chose the path of public service, because we all should be able to live in a state that is ready to take on the big issues of today, and meet the challenges of the future. To achieve our potential, we should and we must be a state that leads the nation in innovation by providing opportunity to people regardless of zip code. Unfortunately an unfair economy has made it harder for everyday people, while large corporations like Foxconn are handed billions of taxpayer dollars. As long as families and small businesses continue to struggle, we will have a long way to go before we reach our collective greatness.

Many things have held us back, and we now find ourselves in a period of inequality not seen since the Great Depression. This unfair economy, that favors the wealthy, has had a disastrous impact on our schools, workers, public spaces, and the pocket books of everyday people. There is growth in equity, but whose equity? A 12% rate of poverty and rising disparity tell the real story, and have catalogued us as first at being worst in far too many categories. Our governor, with a fortune of broken promises, has made far too many decisions to advance his own political career and the bank accounts of his donors, while Wisconsin has been left behind – leaving an uncertain future for too many of our neighbors in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the state. We have to embrace the idea of a fair shot for everyone in all 72 counties to reverse this devastating trend.

In order for Wisconsin to be a true forward thinking place to live, we have to retain and attract more young talent to lift the burden from previous generations. We have world class institutions and remarkable natural resources, however the reluctance to prioritize modern transportation, education, and a new sustainable economy has pushed many people in my age group to choose other places to call home. In fact, we are the 10th most moved-from state in America. We suffer a large social and economic loss every time someone chooses a Colorado, Washington, or dare I say Illinois over Wisconsin.

We can hold great hope for Wisconsin, if we work for change. There is so much we can do to reverse the negative trends that haunt us, and it starts at the top. We need leadership with a vision to recognize that our most difficult tasks are also our greatest opportunities. Across the nation, clean energy jobs are outpacing job creation in other sectors (at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the economy), and Wisconsin is ripe to invest in growth right in our own backyard. We deserve to live in a healthy community access to quality and affordable healthcare is the norm. Every year that we spend over a billion dollars to keep people in prison is another year we miss out on funding our crumbling infrastructure and underfunded schools. Our elected officials must double down on common sense, commit to growing the middle class, and reject this broken system to finally score a win for working people.

For Wisconsin, it’s time for change. The old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore, and it will take a brand new deal, full of meaningful reforms to bring us to real prosperity. A system that benefits all, and not just a lucky few is possible and it starts with the Essentials of Opportunity:

  • Economic Opportunity – Trickle down economics remains a failure, and working people should not live in poverty. Delayed infrastructure projects mean that more would-be workers are out of a job. Our small businesses are struggling while larger companies get the state’s ATM pin. People deserve a living wage, public works are an immediate way to train and bring new people into the workforce, and smart investment in small businesses will go a long way for a lot of people.
  • Education – Eliminating barriers that students in high poverty districts face means that all of our children can succeed in great community schools. Two year college should be made available, free to students right out of high school to help them get into careers sooner. Those who chose four year college should be able to do so without the burden of debt, and those with current student loans should be able to refinance them like other types of loans.
  • Environment – The natural beauty of Wisconsin attracts tens of millions of visitors per year who spend real money – protecting our natural resources is good for business. From rural communities to urban centers, clean air and drinking water should be an expectation in the 21st century, but CAFOs and lead contamination hinder this reality. Fighting climate change with renewable energy, starting with upgrading our public buildings to be be more energy efficient will help spur job growth in every community and lower our future costs.

We all know that our state works best, and that change can happen, when we work together. Now is the moment to reach for the limits of our ambition. Our urban and rural communities have been divided for too long, but the mutual need for one another should be the nexus so that good fortune may be realized by both. Antiquated politics have stood in the way of our potential for too long, but when we take a chance and bet on progress, we become limitless. Disappointment, while at its peak now, must be met with a renewed drive to transform today’s failures into the triumphs of tomorrow. Be it resolved that in the new year, we will expand opportunity for everyone in Wisconsin and become a state that is ready for the future.

Mandela Barnes previously served as State Assemblyman for Wisconsin’s Assembly District 11.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

15 thoughts on “Op Ed: Too Many Young People Leaving Wisconsin”

  1. mike says:

    We don’t embrace that we are a real, urban city. We are more population dense than high growth cities like Denver or Portland, but – unlike them – we still obsess over nonsense like traffic or parking.

  2. David says:

    I believe that the cities of Milwaukee and Madison are the keys to attracting and retaining young people. They are very unique urban areas that should be cultivated and nurtured much like our natural resources. However, the rest of the state, along with state government seem to disagree. What did Walker say?…. divide and conquer? We get in our own way. We have terrible roads, cut transit, let our parks decay starve are assets and villainize each other. Talk radio has made careers out of driving a wedge between our own citizens. Wisconsin is a microcosm of the country…. urban vs rural, city vs suburb, black vs white, secular vs non secular. The list goes on and on and we all lose.

  3. Terry says:

    Legalize cannabis and dump all the far right wing republicans and they’d all come back.

  4. Jack says:

    Dump Walker and start paying people a decent wage.

  5. RK says:

    How many eventually return?

  6. iced tea says:

    Probably not the point of the article to nit-pick the premise, but…
    I looked at the linked presentation and saw no reference to volume. Vermont as the number one moved into state may be a case in point. Idaho is the #3 moved into state in this study. Colorado, and Washington are well below Idaho as moved-into states. Illinois is the #1 moved-out of state
    The linked study ranks states by the moved in/moved out spreads. Wisconsin at #10 moved-out is 45/55, maybe not a stampede. Alabama is the #10 moved-into state, and there may be a wide-spread resurgence of hookworm there!
    The study classifies by income if you click around a bit, and Wisconsin seems to be up by 6% on inbound $150k plus.
    Woot, I guess.

    What struck me as odd was the call to “double down on common sense”- I’d like to invite a re-think of the original bets from the last few years before doubling down on the effects common sense has had here.
    Not a total hater, sorry if it seems that way.

  7. GreenDoor says:

    May I respectfully suggest, Mr. Barnes, that you make another run for public office? Particularly if you could run for Alderman of the 8th District in Milwaukee, that’d be great? We need more leadership that comes with less doom and gloom and talk of “villains” and more motivation, positive ideas, and cheerleading for our City and state.

  8. David says:

    He is running for office. Lt. Gov. We need structural change….. not a pep talk.

  9. Rita says:

    I wish people would stop citing this co-called study. It is only tracking United Van Lines customers.

  10. Julia Alberts says:

    I am one of these young people who left for Chicago with big dreams and came crawling back to Milwaukee with my tail between my legs a few years later. I will never leave Milwaukee again. Moving away made me realize how amazing this city really is. The people, the culture, the ease of getting around, the affordability, this really is a GREAT place. To anyone who complains about rents in Milwaukee, I would invite them to spend a few years in a high rent shoebox in Chicago to put things in perspective. Affordability is KEY to keeping young people here. That being said, there are certainly improvements that need to be made in this city and this state, and I think this article does a great job of pointing those out.

    Younger, more positive leadership would also be a great thing to see in Milwaukee. I think a lot of people my age are so sick of out of touch Boomers who see any and every change in Milwaukee as the beginning of the end. Milwaukee will change, the streetcar is happening, buildings will be built, condos will go up (the horror), and we need young, fresh leadership to help these things along. Let’s cut out the negativity. I swear if I have to read one more comment from some 65 year old in Sussex complaining about the Bucks Stadium I’m going to lose my mind.

    Also, legalize it. Seriously.

  11. Troll says:

    Barnes, you should be asking why Seattle’s has Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks maybe they DON’T overregulate like the city of Milwaukee. How often does a small business want to do something in Milwaukee and all you Alderman demand a donation, or insist the business bend over backwards to make you happy or they must use these contractors, or you demand them to make sure their employees not wear Trump shirts.

  12. Adam says:


    Your last comment demonstrates that you have aptly named yourself.

    Seattle has a critical mass of smart, progressive people that have created an ecosystem where businesses like you cite are born and grow. Walker and the repubs have done their best to chase these folks out of WI over the last year, instead bending over to risk-averse legacy industries owners who would rather spend their profits buying politicians instead of remaining relevant in todays marketplace.

  13. will says:

    It’s not Milwaukee or Madison that are leaving as much as the rural areas that are becoming ghost towns. The Walker and GOP have left the schools, roads,.infrastructure broadband to even think they could stay in small towns. Divide and conquer and the GOP are taking Wisconsin back to the dark ages. Gravel roads are coming back to towns near you.

  14. Terry says:

    I know sooo many smart, creative, educated people from Wisconsin in Seattle. None of them are ever coming back to Walker’s Wississippi. Dump Walker and legalize cannabis Wisconsin and they might at least think about it.

  15. Pamela says:

    Newsflash: for better infrastructure, you have to tax yourselves. No way around it. Seattle passed Sound Transit 3, and the result of dealing with the tech boom there has been an increase in property taxes of 50%. However, the transit is shortening people’s commutes.

    They do regulate – the denser the population, the more you have to regulate. However, they are investing in items of the future.

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