I believe that the economic segregation of our region is the number one social justice issue of our time. This segregation drives many other matters such as education, crime, unemployment, housing and poverty.
When the residents of Waukesha outgrew their water supply, this became a regional problem. When the city of Milwaukee finds it difficult to accommodate the growing concentration of poverty within the city, that somehow remains a Milwaukee problem. We can overcome the multiple political and engineering barriers of acquiring Lake Michigan water for Waukesha, but we can’t seem to find a regional solution for creating jobs and reducing poverty for low income residents of Milwaukee. How is that so?
The issue of Economic Segregation is a structural issue and one that requires a structural solution from the entire region. I know I sound like a broken record on this– but I just don’t see any substantive change happening without a significant investment of resources and political power.
Here is a graphic case in point. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) completed a report on affordable housing in the region. As expected – it found that the region needed to create over 140,000 subsidized housing units in order to meet current need, and further, the majority of existing subsidized units were concentrated in the region’s central cities. A new Brookings study shows how exclusionary zoning and land use regulation has been used across the United States as a way to erect class barriers to zone out low income families. This is something the SEWRPC study found to be true here in our region.
In terms of jobs, SEWRPC looked at where within the region there were jobs available, but no affordable housing to support the workers. SEWRPC called this a Job/Housing imbalance. Guess what. The central cities of the region had no job/housing imbalance while practically all of the suburban communities did. Jobs are available outside of the city, but if there is no rapid transit to get there and no affordable housing to live there, and if you don’t have a car – then the jobs may as well be located in Walla Walla Washington for all the good that provides to a willing worker in central city Milwaukee.
How do we begin to address this great economic divide? I believe it has to begin with the faith community. In his book, The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser discusses how the people of faith must serve as the hand of God to bring about the Kingdom of God. Rolheiser explains that “with few exceptions, all Christian denominations hold and teach the following principles”
So I am proposing that every church in every denomination within the region start by looking at the issue of economic segregation as a justice issue and then begin to identify steps the church can take to alleviate this injustice. For example, churches can:
The residents of Waukesha were thirsty and we found a way to help them. The people of Milwaukee need jobs and a ladder out of poverty. Can we deny them?
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.