Tom Barrett Says that Poverty in Milwaukee is Unacceptable

Milwaukee is the 4th Poorest City in the Country

Tom Barrett JobsAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Milwaukee has a 27% poverty rate making us the 4th poorest city in the nation.  The only cities with more poverty than Milwaukee are Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

A more interesting observation is that the top 10 poorest cities in the U.S. are all run by Democrat mayors.  This may be a coincidence, or it may be ideological failure.  Either way, Detroit hasn't had a Republican mayor since 1961, Buffalo since 1954, and Milwaukee since 1908.

Beyond the Democrat/poverty correlation, news of the census report is not good for Tom Barrett's campaign.  For the past several months, Barrett has run ads critical of Scott Walker's job creation performance while exalting his own record in Menomonee Valley.  However, an enigmatic question arises.  How can Milwaukee be among the top 5 poorest cities in the country while its mayor has such an acclaimed job-creating record?  These two propositions seem counterintuitive. 

Barrett Touts His Record as a Job Creator

One of Barrett's ads boasted that he redeveloped the Menomonee Valley from a "forgotten wasteland" into a thriving commercial center.  The ad called the redevelopment of the Valley under Barrett a "renaissance" period where he "actively recruited" reputable talent like Ingeteam, Helios USA, and Talgo.  So did Barrett play a key role in the Valley's development? 

First, we learned that the Valley was not a wasteland as Barrett's commercial had proclaimed.  Quite the contrary, under Mayor Norquist, the Valley saw major restoration with the erection of the Marquette University Sports Complex, Potawatomi Casino, the Miller Park, and the MMSD facility.  These aren't your ordinary run-of-he-mill businesses either; they are landmarks that attract millions of tourists and visitors annually.

Second, the location of the Valley is advantageous for any business.  It's located off the interstate near an international airport.  There is also access to rail lines.  In terms of shipping, it's an ideal objective for any robust company. 

Third, Milwaukee has a renowned history in manufacturing.  This translates into fewer costs on training.  Business heads from Ingeteam and Talgo had already reported Milwaukee's skilled workforce was a plus for moving their businesses to Wisconsin.

And fourth, by moving to the Menomonee Valley, businesses like Ingeteam, Talgo, and Helios qualified for federal stimulus funding.  Ingeteam received $1.66 million in federal tax credits.  Helios USA received $1 million in federal stimulus.  And Talgo, a company that builds trains, came to Milwaukee shortly after Wisconsin was awarded nearly a billion dollars of stimulus for high speed rail.

In sum, the economic development of Menomonee Valley was well underway before Mayor Barrett entered the scene.  A beneficial location for shipping, a skilled workforce, and sizable subsidy carrots from the federal government lured big players into the Valley.  Subsequently, there is no evidence that Mayor Tom Barrett was a key mover in a Menomonee Valley renaissance.

Of course, this leaves us with a significant disparity.  The Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reported that in the last decade, Milwaukee has one of the worst job creating records in the U.S.  However, Barrett tells us that his job-creating record is the leading reason to elect him to governor. 

It ought to be noted that some have come to Barrett's aid blaming the current recession for Milwaukee's financial woes.  It is not unreasonable to state that the recession exacerbated Milwaukee's poverty.  But the recession is not the only factor.  Why did the city of Milwaukee drop from 11th to the 4th poorest in the nation when some cities managed to improve their poverty standing in the same recessionary period?   

The Solution

A good education leads to better opportunities, but MPS' ranking among comparable school districts is dismal.  ACT scores at MPS have dropped every year for the past 5 years.  And in 2004, MPS' graduation rate was 46%.  Out of 18 comparable school districts, MPS' 8th graders finished second to last in reading and mathematics.  The only city that did worse than Milwaukee was Detroit, which by no coincidence has the highest poverty rate in the country. 

A key solution to MPS' problems is to increase competition.  We may not see improvement over night, but if we fund the School Choice program and remove the caps on student vouchers, we will be on the right path.  We should promote a partnership with Catholic schools that consistently show graduation rates around 90%.  But Mayor Barrett has not been aggressive pushing for a removal of the enrollment caps, and therefore he has done little to affect true educational reform in Milwaukee.


When news came out that Milwaukee ranked 4th for poverty in the nation, Barrett said that it was "unacceptable" and it "should be a concern" to everyone in the state.  He's right.  So who do we hold responsible?      

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