I went to bed Sunday night listening to helicopters circling a troubled Milwaukee neighborhood, about two miles away. The impression I had was of hungry buzzards circling a wounded city.
As I think about the recent altercations in Milwaukee, the city I have come to love, the image of circling seems quite appropriate. It seems we are content to circle around critical issues rather than solve them. In the aftermath of the unrest, we hear politicians calling for more jobs, better ways to deal with poverty, education, crime and racism. The reality is we have been circling these issues for generations. Unfortunately, the city of Milwaukee doesn’t have the resources to address these issues head on in any meaningful fashion. Quoting from the Vital Signs report issued by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, “Milwaukee has dropped…to the bottom tier (of comparable cities) in poverty rate (and) is one of only four metro areas with an increase in poverty rate from two years prior.” In the same Vital Signs report, we find that Milwaukee is last in rate of homeownership with “the lowest number of owner-occupied housing units” when compared to similar cities.
So what does that data all mean? Milwaukee is getting poorer and the property tax base is shrinking. These data shouldn’t be a surprise. The Milwaukee-Waukesha region is the most economically segregated metropolitan area in the entire United States. This hyper concentration of poverty creates its own problems. According to the study, “Less advantaged communities suffer not just from a lack of economic resources but from everything from higher crime and drop-out rates to higher rates of infant mortality and chronic disease.”
So now we are faced with a dilemma. The issues of poverty, unemployment, racism, crime and economic segregation are starting to bubble over in citizen unrest. A structural solution to the problems will require a significant effort in terms of money, creativity and political will. The city certainly has the desire and creativity to tackle these issues – but lacks the funds and the broader political will needed to garner the expanded resources to address these fundamental concerns. The highly respected Public Policy Forum reviews the city budget on an annual basis and noted in the 2016 city budget report, that Milwaukee has “underlying structural issues that continue to inhibit investment in new programs and infrastructure.”
In summary, we have a growing concentration of poverty in a city that doesn’t have the resources to deal effectively with it and which is located in a region that is the most economically segregated in the USA. The answer must be a regional one.
If you live outside of Milwaukee and don’t believe you must be part of the solution, then you are simply content to circle the issues and not deal with them. If you don’t live in Milwaukee, please take a look at your own community’s low income population; at your minority population; at the availability of affordable housing; at the availability of rapid transit so people from outside of your community can access jobs within your community.
Think about this for one moment: According to the UWM Employment and Training Institute, the CITY of Milwaukee “houses 73% of the 4-county area’s poor residents.”
And so the question is: are we content to ask poor residents of the city of Milwaukee to tax themselves to pay for a way out of poverty or should the rest of the region shoulder a significant portion of the cost?
The city of Milwaukee is not wounded. It is a city with a generous spirit as evidenced by the number of poor in our midst and as evidenced by the outpouring of support of the Sherman Park Neighborhood in the aftermath of the civil disturbance.
The city doesn’t need the pity or the derision of our suburban neighbors. We need your voluntary partnership. We need you to be a Good Samaritan. Most remember the story of the Good Samaritan from the bible and how this societal outcast ministered to a person in need. What many seem to forget is that the Good Samaritan not only ministered to the wounds of the victim, he also took money from his own purse and paid the inn keeper for the continued care of the injured soul.
The governor was quick to place the National Guard on alert after the unrest. Is he equally willing to call the legislature back into session and usher through a package of regional tax sharing aimed specifically at providing jobs and a path out of poverty for Milwaukee residents?
The recent outbreak in Milwaukee is a symptom of a deeper issue; one that the city cannot solve on its own. Are we willing to create a circle of friends to help or are we looking to circle the wagons and point our fingers at others; asking the poor to continue to bear the burden of the structural ills of the greater society?
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.