Healthy Communities – Milwaukee

November 12, 2014

Building off the 2013 Healthy Communities Chicago Regional Summit, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago will be cohosting a conference, "Healthy Communities – Milwaukee," on December 2, 2014, that explores the converging visions of community and economic development, public health, and the public safety/criminal justice system. This conference is part of the Healthy Communities Initiative1 created by the Federal Reserve System and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This initiative, under the leadership of David Erickson from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, raises awareness about research indicating that people who live in supportive, socially connected, and economically thriving communities tend to be healthier2. Erickson has proffered that community development finance provides, through various interventions designed to improve local conditions, the opportunity for otherwise disenfranchised populations to engage in their local economies, access critical services, and therby become more healthy productive citizens. Neither the economic nor health impact of these interventions are easily measured, but strong correlations between social/economic and physical health across large populations support the argument for improving conditions through this work3.

However, unique to the Milwaukee gathering will be an exploration of the intersection of the community development field with the public safety/criminal justice system in order to secure positive public health outcomes. 

In Milwaukee, many concerned with the long-term welfare of the city want to explore linkages between public health, safety, and economic conditions. The district attorney and Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office have long recognized that the individuals in the criminal justice system disproportionately come from communities with high rates of infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, lead and other environmental toxins, and communicable diseases. Further, many of residents of these communities also often suffer from chronic mental illness and/or substance abuse issues, which leads them to incarceration for minor, non-violent crimes. Many of these negative outcomes are driven by environmental factors, such as poverty, failing schools, unemployment, racial isolation, etc. These factors are commonly referred to as the social determinants of health.

More than $1 billion has been spent through various federal, state, county, and city programs over the past 10 years in Milwaukee's low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Despite this investment, socioeconomic conditions in these communities has not improved.

Erickson, while visiting Milwaukee in April, stated that Milwaukee is uniquely positioned among American cities; among other assets, it is small enough that all the representatives of key community resources know one another. This fact alone increases the odds for aligning resources and expectations toward productive policies and programs.

In Milwaukee, many concerned with the long-term welfare of the city want to explore linkages between public health, security, and economic conditions. The District Attorney and Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office have long recognized that the individuals who disproportionately populate the criminal justice system come from communities highest in infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, and with (evidence of) lead and other environmental toxins, failing schools, and high rates of communicable diseases. Additionally, others who enter the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness and addiction. 

In response, court systems have begun to implement specialty courts like Drug Treatment, Veterans, Mental Health, and Alcohol to treat a broader spectrum of responses to problematic behavior. The recent advent of evidence-based practices has enabled courts and corrections to collect statistically valid information about every individual entering the system. This information permits a robust, data-driven analysis of subpopulations entering the criminal justice system.

What has become increasingly clear is that persistent, complex community problems in Milwaukee – poverty, poor health, incarceration – cannot be solved by agencies or sectors working in isolation. Greater alignment and collaboration is needed among institutions relative to the deployment of resources and strategies if significant change and improvement is to occur. To establish the groundwork for the December 2nd Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cosponsored conference, a series of community conversation “cafés” are being held in Milwaukee throughout October. The purpose of the cafés is to ensure that the conference and its follow-up activities reflect and address the perspectives and concerns of people from different sectors of the community.

The December 2, 2014, conference will bring together professionals from community and economic development, public health, the criminal justice system, and philanthropy to shed light on the social determinants of health and explore community-based models and strategies that address the socioeconomic conditions of a place through evidence-based practices. The agenda will be constructed, in part, from the outcomes of the cafés. A major component will be to connect emerging data about criminal justice system subpopulations with work being done in the fields of community and economic development and public health. The conference goal is to engage the whole community in a conversation on how different sectors can work together more effectively to make Milwaukee safer, healthier, and more prosperous. Additionally, appropriate follow-up activities that continue to shape new solutions will be discussed and planned.


1 The Healthy Communities Initiative was designed to enrich the debate on how cross-sector and place-based approaches to revitalize low-income communities might both revitalize neighborhoods and improve health.  The Federal Reserve System and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created the Healthy Communities Initiative to encourage stronger linkages between the two sectors and move them forward towards a healthier future. Please visit the Healthy Communities Initiative website for more information. 

2 David Erickson, et al., 2009, Community Development Investment Review, Volume 5, Issue 3.

3 Ibid.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.


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