Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Crowley Will Tackle Systemic Injustice

County executive sets his sights on policies to change inequities in health, the economy and more.

By - Aug 11th, 2020 05:28 pm
David Crowley. Image from Milwaukee County Youtube livestream.

David Crowley. Image from Milwaukee County Youtube livestream.

In his first public address since becoming Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley committed his administration to addressing racial inequity in Milwaukee County.

On Monday afternoon, Crowley delivered a speech laying out the goals of his administration dubbed: One County, One Vision. In it, he discussed actions already taken by the county, and plans for the future.

Crowley delivered the speech via a livestream because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which figured heavily in his message. The county executive spoke of twin pandemics: COVID-19 and racism. And he said, “The pandemic has only exacerbated the disparities many of us know all too well and have existed for many years.”

The three broad goals of the administration are to “create intentional inclusion,” “bridge the gap in health disparities” and to “invest in equity.”

On inclusion, Crowley said that decision makers in Milwaukee County have often been straight, white men. It’s time, he said, that decision makers better reflect the diversity of Milwaukee County. 

Health and economic inequity are both intimately linked to Milwaukee’s history of segregation and racism. Crowley noted that the county is often rated among the most segregated in the nation and among the worst to raise a black child. 

To improve health inequities, Crowley is committing his administration to making programs and services more accessible, individually tailored and holistic. “Programs and services don’t always address the needs of the whole person or whole families, rather they address issues one by one,” he said.

And to improve the job opportunities and economic conditions for Milwaukee County residents, Crowley said: “To make any real progress we must invest sufficient resources in our residents and communities so that everyone can thrive, not just survive.” Crowley committed to target communities with the most need for “upstream” investments.

That word, “upstream” is a reference to a parable that Crowley used to frame his administration’s policy goals in the speech. It’s about two young men that spend all day pulling drowning people from a river, only to walk upstream and find that everyone was falling from an unprotected cliff.

The idea being that addressing social problems and policy failures requires attending to them at their cause, not their effect. “In order to achieve racial equity, we must shift the bulk of our focus upstream on strategies that prevent poor outcomes for everyone in our community,” he said.

For example, instead of building out services that respond to families that have been evicted, the county has prioritized eviction prevention. Crowley told the story of a woman that lost her job during the pandemic and struggled to pay rent. It reached the point where all she was doing was paying off late fees, unable to dent the balance of rent due. Community Advocates, which is the main agency working with the county on eviction prevention, helped reduce her fees by thousands of dollars.

But, even further upstream are the racial disparities that caused Black people to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Crowley committed to using a racial equity lens to make important decisions in Milwaukee County, whether they be hiring or budgeting for the county.

Black people have made up a disproportionate number of cases of COVID-19 in Milwaukee County, as have Hispanic residents. And the unemployment rate for Black workers during the pandemic has been consistently above the national average, and well above the average for white workers.

“The dramatic disparities highlighted by the pandemic show deep inequities that have existed in government systems for generations,” Crowley said, and that he is dedicating his administration to fight.

Already, county employees have undergone a combined 11,000 hours of racial equity training. And recently, the county board passed legislation aimed at investigating areas where the county can improve racial equity and better serve residents.

In a statement, Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson offered her support of Crowley’s vision for addressing problems “upstream.” She said, “I’m committed to using the oversight role of the Board to analyze county operations and identify new efficiencies, especially as they relate to dismantling institutional racism and working towards racial equity.”

Policies already in motion include making the Department of Health and Human Services more accessible, making all agency access points a one-stop shop for the services they offer. Then there’s youth corrections, where the county is shifting away from a model focused on incarceration to a community-based model that attempts to improve the lives of the children entering the justice system.

Unfortunately, as Crowley made clear, the county’s finances have been in a precarious state for years, and are getting worse. The massive costs and loss of revenue caused by the pandemic are layered on top of the county’s existing structural deficit. The county has estimated it faces an unprecedented $42 to $60 million budget deficit for 2021.

If revenues don’t change, Crowley said, by 2027 state mandated services will take up every local tax dollar the county has at its disposal. In that scenario, the county would have no extra revenue to fund local priorities like parks or eviction prevention.

Going upstream will require money. “Cuts year after year are unsustainable,” Crowley said. He advocated for the state to send revenue back to Milwaukee County in line with the year-over-year increases the county has sent to the state. And he called for a one percent sales tax, to generate more revenue and also alleviate the county’s reliance on property taxes.

“Without solving our fiscal issues, Milwaukee County will not be able to navigate the storm we are in,” Crowley said. “We will not be able to address our racial inequities, improve the health of our community or become the community we aspire to be.”

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