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Reports Show Extreme Health Disparities in Wisconsin

Jaimie Duplass -

Several troubling reports were released this year about the overall health of Wisconsin’s black residents. 

One study found Wisconsin to be the only state where the life expectancy gap between blacks and whites grew over the past 20 years.

Another ranked the state dead last for the educational and economic well-being of black children.

This week, while WUWM is revisiting the issue of Wisconsin’s high black male incarceration rate, we examine the factors contributing to our stark disparities in well-being. Milwaukee is no stranger to them.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Decades ago, the American Public Health Association ranked Milwaukee as the healthiest big city in America.

“Milwaukee won the healthiest city contest city so many years consecutively that they did away with the contest. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was no better place to live in terms of your health than Milwaukee,” says Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker.

Baker says unfortunately, a divide has developed and deepened when it comes to the well-being of residents. Many poor, minority people in the central city are falling behind.

Much has changed over 85 years in Milwaukee, including a big drop in the number of family-supporting jobs. Yet, Baker also points to reports showing that Wisconsin spends far less than other states on public health systems. And he cites Gov. Walker’s decision to reject federal funds to expand Medicaid to thousands more low-income adults.

Lois Quinn is a senior scientist with the Employment and Training Institute at UWM.

“We have moved to the point that your race and your zip code in Wisconsin now say a great deal about, not only the quality of your life, but possibly how long your life actually will be,” Quinn says.

Quinn says Wisconsin’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate of black men is also driving disparities. Her research shows that more than half of black men in their 30s from Milwaukee County have served time in prison.

“We’ve created a huge class of African American families with men absent as breadwinners and the women have to fill in. They have to raise the children, and then they also have to raise them in generally poverty. So it’s a deadly…a devastating mix,” Quinn says.

Ella Jah is a nurse practitioner at a primary care clinic Children’s Hospital and Marquette University recently opened on the north side. The clinic helps ease the doctor shortage that exists in Milwaukee’s central city – another problem residents face.

A 22-year-old has come in today for a bad cough, but Jah sees on the chart the woman hasn’t had a full physical in years. She asks the patient if she knows the importance of a physical.

“To get checked for any infections or anything, like diabetes and stuff…,” the woman says.

Jah says some people tell her they don’t visit the doctor because they don’t have a car or driver’s license. Others have a job with no sick leave.

“Some of them are working two or three jobs. I mean it’s, putting food on the table versus healthcare because if they don’t show up for work, they’re gonna get fired,” Jah says.

“Milwaukee is kind of a perfect storm of all the things that could go wrong or be wrong,” says Patricia McManus, president of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

She says when explaining why Wisconsin is an outlier, it can’t discount its long history of segregation by race and class.

“Most other places have the black suburb. Milwaukee doesn’t have that. Ninety-eight percent of black folks still live in the city of Milwaukee,” McManus says.

She says one result of blacks and whites living separate lives in the same community is that problems in the other group can become invisible, or at least easier to ignore. McManus says sadly, she does not see any promising policy efforts to improve prospects for black people. But she does come across glimmers of hope in her day-to-day work.

“Resiliency is the term I use. It’s amazing to me that there are people in these community in the midst of the poverty and how folks are treated and whatever, you still see people taking good care of their families, working where they can. The families are still figuring how to survive,” McManus says.

And amid all the troubling health reports, there have been successes. They include a falling teen birth rate, fewer kids with lead poisoning and the city’s highest immunization rate ever documented. Yet Health Commissioner Bevan Baker says as long as one group continues teetering, the entire state falters.

“I think until all of Wisconsin is healthy and all of Wisconsin is out of dead last, than I think no one should be able to hold their head high. It’s an embarrassment for every citizen,” Baker says.

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