Data Draws Link Between Metro Milwaukee's Segregation and Poverty

Mar 8, 2017

It’s widely understood that Milwaukee is a segregated metropolitan area. But what’s less-appreciated is how segregation connects to other social issues the area faces.

Soon-to-be-released research by UW-Milwaukee professor Marc Levine links segregation to a key factor that overlays it – poverty. Levine is the director of UWM’s Center for Economic Development.

READ: Measuring Black/White Segregation in Metro Milwaukee

“The overlap is very strong between the level of segregation in any metropolitan area and the level of concentrated poverty,” Levine says. Concentrated poverty is defined by sociologists as “neighborhoods, either by census tract or zip code, that have at least 40% of the residents living below the poverty line.”

So, as Milwaukee ranks amongst the highest for segregation, “we [also] rank second to Detroit in the percentage of African-Americans in the region living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods,” he says.

Levine’s data shows about one third of metro Milwaukee’s black population lives in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.

Credit Marc V. Levine, "The Most Segregated Metropolis in America? Race, Poverty, and Schooling in Divided Milwaukee." (UWM Center for Economic Development, forthcoming)

Levine also points to what he calls “a striking phenomenon” among the area’s black residents who are not struggling, economically. Many of them – even in upper income brackets - live in very poor neighborhoods, even though they can afford not to.

LISTEN: Why Some People Live Where They Do In Metro Milwaukee

“You have black households with incomes of $100,000 a year or $200,000 a year and up living in neighborhoods where the overall poverty rate is 40%, and that is something that doesn’t exist in any other metropolitan area in the country.”

This indicator, Levine says, shows the “extent and tightness the entrenched nature of segregation in our community.”

Credit : Marc V. Levine, "The Most Segregated Metropolis in America? Race, Poverty, and Schooling in Divided Milwaukee." (UWM Center for Economic Development, forthcoming)

And, “when you compare black households in Milwaukee with incomes over $100,000 a year with a white households with incomes over $100,000 a year, the black household is 35 times more likely to live in a concentrated poverty neighborhood,” he says.

Some of the other significant findings from Levine’s research:

  • About 15% of metro Milwaukee’s black households with incomes over $100,000 live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.
  • Among the Milwaukee area’s white households with annual incomes under $10,000, only about 9% live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.

“So basically, an income of over $100,000 a year for black households buys you in Milwaukee a somewhat poorer neighborhood than for a white household with incomes around $10,000,” he says. “That’s an extraordinary disparity in my mind and reflects to me the pervasiveness of segregation.”

What Is Causing This?

“We don’t know all of the reasons,” Levine says. “We do know Milwaukee ranks very high in disparities in lending, so there may be an issue in terms of bank practices, and in terms of the ability to get mortgages in suburban areas.”

Levine points out that metro Milwaukee has the lowest level of black suburbanization in the country, which leads him to wonder, “Is that a matter of discrimination in housing in the suburbs even for the affluent households?”

Marc Levine in his office.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

“I think it is very clear that we do have remnants of [discrimination] informally through the home buying and residential choice process,” Levine says. “Is there a sense of a culture here where it’s just sort of understood that if you move to certain neighborhoods, certain communities outside the City of Milwaukee, that you’re likely to face a certain level of uncomfortableness… harassment?”

He also points to a shortage of affordable housing in the suburbs. “We aren’t going to get lower income black households having access to housing in the suburbs,” he says. “Is it a matter of a kind of culture in the suburbs that is perceived to be unwelcoming to the black community?”

So, while we no longer have the overt discrimination of redlining and racial restrictive covenants of the 1900s, Levine believes all of these other issues reinforce each other to create the segregated metro Milwaukee of today.

For more on this topic, explore our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

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