History Helps Explain Connection Between Segregation and Concentrated Poverty in Milwaukee

Mar 8, 2017

Poverty is entrenched in some of Milwaukee's mainly black neighborhoods. People studying the issue say financial struggles piled up as employers left. So they say change only will come when more people are put to work, in family-supporting jobs.

Decades of racist policies and attitudes have led to entrenched segregation in metro Milwaukee. African-Americans remain concentrated in the city, including in its poorest neighborhoods.

History helps explain the relationship between poverty and segregation, including in the neighborhood surrounding what's now the city's Century City Business Park.

"This was all A.O. Smith or Tower Automotive," says Howard Snyder, who heads the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation.

Snyder says the vast property off Capitol once employed 10,000 people. The last of the jobs went away, when Tower Automotive closed about a decade ago. Snyder says what also went away, were smaller factories that bordered the huge plant.

Snyder says because so many people who worked there lived nearby, the job losses hit surrounding neighborhoods hard. It's a story that began unfolding in Milwaukee in the 1980s, as the city lost many of its manufacturing plants. UWM researcher Marc Levine says African-Americans felt the biggest impact.

"In the 1970s, 55 percent or so of African-American males in Milwaukee who were employed were employed in manufacturing, whereas about 25 or 30 percent of white males were employed in manufacturing. So the hit was much, much stronger in a black community that was much more reliant on manufacturing than the white community," Levine says.

READ: Data Draws Link Between Metro Milwaukee's Segregation and Poverty

Resulting struggles have become generational for some black households. Levine’s research shows many continuing to live in areas of joblessness and intense poverty, with limited opportunities for change.

"You have segregation, you have a declining economy, you have a concentration of economic distress, and then all of these indicators kind of pile up on one another and you have again what I call kind of the 'zone of cumulative disadvantage,'" Levine says.

Marilyn Miller is president of MICAH, or Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope. She says it's hard to understand why elected leaders didn’t put major efforts in place immediately, to help factory workers find new opportunities as old ones vanished. And she's frustrated that concentrated poverty in black neighborhoods has become the status quo.

"The fact that we have so many people of color underemployed, unemployed, shut out of the job and economic arena, is an indictment on this whole state. People think they can wash their hands of it because they don't live there -- it's a lie. You are part of the solution, as well as the problem," Miller says.

"We miss out on so much talent by not really nurturing all of it. You know, we leave so much genius right there, laying dormant, because we won't accept each other for who we are," adds the Rev. Gregory Lewis of Pastors United.

Some activists are looking for ways to connect black residents on the north side with meaningful employment. Faith leaders are pushing for more bus routes to take people from the city to more plentiful jobs in the suburbs. And CEOs, such as Tim Sullivan, are working to attract manufacturers to Milwaukee's north side. Sullivan is the former head of Bucyrus and now runs a company called the REV Group, which makes vehicles such as buses and ambulances. He hopes to locate a plant on the north side.

"Until we get companies willing to come into the north side and establish job opportunities, we just don't think we're going to move the needle. We're just not going to really correct the situation that evolved when the jobs went away," Sullivan says.

And back at the old Tower Automotive site, efforts are underway to attract new businesses. The city has revamped the property, investing millions of dollars.

Howard Snyder of the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation points out that such endeavors take time. And he acknowledges some businesses go directly to the suburbs, without looking twice at vacant parcels closer to Milwaukee's largely black neighborhoods. Snyder says planners may never learn the exact reasons. Yet he doesn't rule out prejudice as a possible factor.

"It could be that the business owner lives five blocks from the plant, it could be that he or she sends their kids to school there and they want to increase the tax base, it could be that they're afraid of this neighborhood. It could be all those things and everything in the middle," Snyder says.

Snyder says he wishes more employers would invest in this part of town, in order to tap into its best asset: its human capital.

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

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