Black Milwaukeeans Are Generally Worse Off Today Than 50 Years Ago, UWM Study Finds

Aug 17, 2020

Black people in Milwaukee are generally worse off today than 40 or 50 years ago compared to Black people across the country, in indicators like poverty, mass incarceration, economic mobility and segregation. That’s according to the latest study from UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development.

Marc Levine, professor emeritus of history and founding director of the Center for Economic Development authored the study. It looks at racial inequality among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas.

The Black poverty rate in Milwaukee is the highest in the country at 33.4%. Levine says it was at its highest in 1990 at 41%.

When it comes to poverty in Milwaukee, he says there are layers. The study looks at "extreme poverty," which is the percentage of the Black population with an income of less than 50% of the poverty rate.

"Milwaukee is of course among the worst in [the] country at that as well. Fourteen percent of the Black population in Milwaukee has income that’s 50% or less than the poverty line," Levine says.

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The study also looks at "concentrated poverty," which he says relates to segregation.

"If you have a very segregated city, and you have African Americans concentrated in particular neighborhoods and many of those African Americans are poor – because we have such a high Black poverty rate – then, in fact, you’re gonna have what’s called concentrated poverty, geographically focused poverty in these census tracts or slightly larger neighborhoods areas," he explains.

Levine says that 26% of the Black population in the entire metro-Milwaukee area, whether or not they’re poor, live in concentrated poverty. He says that’s a “stunning" statistic when you think about it.

"I have statistics for another study that I’m gonna be doing that shows a shockingly high percentage of Black households in Milwaukee with income over $100,000 a year that are living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods," Levine says. "That’s just another slice at how this, sort of what sociologists call “cumulative inequalities” kind of pile up on one another. And so, you end up with even people who aren’t poor living in poor neighborhoods, and their kids grow up in those neighborhoods, and even if the kids are not growing up in poor households their prospects for the future are compromised because they’re growing up in a poor neighborhood."

"I think what this study shows is the pervasiveness of poverty and the extensiveness of the phenomenon so that it sort of penetrates into all these aspects of African American life in the city, and it's something that been this way for at least 30 years."

Levine says you can see massive racial disparities in Milwaukee. He uses white poverty rates as an example, which he says is different from Black poverty.

"If you’re poor and white, you’re still likely to live in sort of an OK neighborhood and have access to OK schools, and in the future have a better chance for social mobility to get ahead," he says. "So, poverty, you can start with it simply and say, 'What’s the poverty rate?' But it’s really important to dig down, to drill down into these various aspects of it. And I think what this study shows is the pervasiveness of poverty and the extensiveness of the phenomenon so that it sort of penetrates into all these aspects of African American life in the city, and it’s something that been this way for at least 30 years."

Levine says the poverty rate in 1990 was so high because of the economic collapse of the '80s, and the loss of manufacturing jobs which cost African American families and neighborhoods the most.

He says he thinks the city has made very little progress on the issue of poverty in particular, and that’s one area where we need major efforts.