Report Highlights Major Economic Disparities In Milwaukee's 53206

Mar 4, 2019

The economic and other disparities between residents of Milwaukee's central city and other parts of the metropolitan area are well known. The suburbs, in particular, show lower rates of poverty and incarceration and higher income, education and home-ownership than many parts of the central city. That's especially true for one ZIP code.

For many, 53206 has become a metaphor for the challenges facing inner-city residents, especially residents of color. The areas high incarceration rate and low employment rate have attracted national and international reporting.

A recently released study spanning 17 years tries to quantify, what it terms, the "ecosystem of disadvantage" in 53206. Its author is Marc Levine, a professor emeritus of history, economic development and urban studies at UW-Milwaukee.

Professor Emeritus Marc Levine.
Credit UWM/Troye Fox

Levine focuses his discussion on concentrated and cumulative disadvantages, as well as the ecosystem of disadvantages a community can experience. He says that, while slightly different, all of these terms point to the same idea.

"We're talking about a number of disadvantages - in terms of earnings inequality, income inequality, poverty, unemployment - all concentrated in a geographic space. When we talk about cumulative disadvantage, that also refers to that concentration, but it refers to an accumulation of those disadvantages interracting with one another over time," Levine says.

He continues, "When we talk about an ecosystem that, more or less, references the same phenomenon of interlocking or interconnected kinds of disadvantages that form an ecosystem, for a lack of a better term, that characterizes the entire socioeconomic phenomena that are occurring in the neighborhood."

"When we talk about an ecosystem that, more or less, references the same phenomenon of interlocking or interconnected kinds of disadvantages that form an ecosystem, for a lack of a better term, that characterizes the entire socioeconomic phenomena that are occurring in the neighborhood."

The area Levine's study pinpoints is Milwaukee's own 53206, which is infamously regarded as the ZIP code that incarcerates the highest percentage of black men in the United States. While that statistic is an alleged truth, Levine says that there is much to learn and to say about the inequality the community clearly faces.

"Whether 53206 is the most incarcerated ZIP code in the United States or if it's the 250th most incarcerated ... it's still a ZIP code that has much, much too high a level of mass incarceration. And that level of mass incarceration is one of the integral elements of cumulative disadvantages that we outline in the report," Levine says.

When it comes to inequality, there are many elements that contribute to the issue. When compared to the rest of Milwaukee, the 53206 ZIP code experiences worse outcomes in education, employment, income, incarceration, and housing. 

"Over one-fifth of employed residents of 53206 report income below the poverty level, a level of working poverty that far exceeds the rate elsewhere in Milwaukee," the report states. In addition, less than half of the prime working-age adults (those between the ages of 25 and 54) in 53206 held full-time jobs in 2017, compared to 69 percent in the city of Milwaukee and 75 percent in Milwaukee's suburbs.