Chicago Fed Insights

Visions for a More Resilient and Inclusive Milwaukee

December 04, 2020

A virtual panel on visions for Milwaukee’s future was held on December 1 as part of the Chicago Fed’s Project Hometown series. Jeremiah Boyle, assistant vice president and managing director of community and economic development at the Chicago Fed, moderated the discussion. Boyle has a long-term connection to Milwaukee that continues today. Boyle’s daughter is a senior at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, and “she has benefited from a truly welcoming community in the city,” he said. In his prior role at the Chicago Fed, Boyle worked directly with Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Also, a decade ago, he contributed to a joint Federal Reserve—Brookings Institute study on concentrated poverty in America, where he wrote a case study focusing on the Northwest side of Milwaukee. This Chicago Fed community forum focused on ways to rebuild Milwaukee so that all members of society can prosper, with a particular emphasis on reversing racial inequalities.

Chicago Fed President, Charlie Evans, provided opening remarks, explaining that the dual challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the recession have taken a particularly “heavy toll” on underserved communities in terms of job losses, business closures, and mortality. This has led to tremendous uncertainty, but also hope. To aid in the recovery early on, Evans said “the Fed moved aggressively to keep borrowing costs low for households and businesses and to keep markets functioning” through a variety of Fed measures. Despite improvements in the economy in recent months, Evans explained we are still far behind where we were at the start of the pandemic. Children and young adults have been significantly impacted at a vulnerable time in their lives, he added. “The longer these challenges remain, the greater the risk of widening many preexisting inequities in our most vulnerable communities,” remarked Evans. In response, he said we must ensure access to credit, jobs, education, and quality housing for our most vulnerable neighbors in Milwaukee. Evans concluded by saying that he hopes that this discussion will be the “beginning of a dialogue regarding how to promote and support a more inclusive recovery.”

Panelist George Hinton, CEO of the Social Development Commission, was born and raised in Milwaukee, attended public school there, and went on graduate from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. He explained that the city was in crisis even before the pandemic. From a health standpoint, Milwaukee County ranks second from the bottom in health outcomes in the country. Quoting a study by Professor Mark Levine from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, median income after inflation for Black households in the city has declined by 30% since 1979. It is the most racially segregated city in the U.S. and ranks third highest in incarcerations among Black men of working age (2014–18 figures). Also, the city has the second lowest level of Black homeownership in the country. Hinton noted that many of these trends also mirror experiences affecting the Latinx community in Milwaukee. “There is still a lot of evidence of redlining, and that may impact our insurance, how our properties appreciate, and other indicators that may affect the wealth of people of color,” Hinton added.

Hinton was asked to respond to the question, “How do we recover our community and what does that recovery look like?” He discussed the need to invest in businesses within the city. There is an abundance of labor, the infrastructure is in place, and people want to work. By locating in the urban center, important industries like healthcare and food services can be run by local businesses to serve local people. Not only would attracting businesses to the city increase income through employment, it would provide an important source of tax revenue to fund infrastructure and education, said Hinton. He stressed that education was the remedy to keep people out of jail. Owning a home is important to build wealth, and it needs to be cultivated in the city, he stressed. Hinton concluded by saying that in order for development strategies to be effective, the culture of racism in the city and in Wisconsin as a whole needs to be changed.

As commissioner of city development in Milwaukee, Lafayette Crump addresses important economic and social matters through policy and the execution of policy. “I couldn’t agree more with the issues as outlined by George,” said Crump. He reiterated that “housing is in crisis” and that homeownership creates an important path to wealth. The city’s upcoming budget and partnership efforts will work to advance owner occupancy rates both in the immediate future and over the next five to ten years, he said. If community members are homeowners and landlords, they tend to take better care of their neighborhoods, Crump added.

Crump remarked that many people consider social unrest as another pandemic, adding that social unrest is a symptom of racial inequality. Inequality reveals itself in the economy, social stratification, education, and health, he explained. A culture shift to remove the inequities of the past is required to provide economic opportunities for people of color in the city and to achieve “equitable economic development,” said Crump. He also explained that there might be pressure to push through government contracts in the city that fall short on diversity metrics rules for the sake of urgency during the pandemic. He felt it was more important than ever to be stringent on guidelines that support diverse businesses across industry sectors.

“What we need is people who are willing to row in the same direction with us,” said Crump, as he stressed the importance of collaboration to fund investments in the city, particularly in light of municipal budgetary constraints. His department seeks partnerships with community-based organizations, the philanthropic community, quasi-governmental agencies, the state government, and the federal government.

Panelist Julia Taylor is president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), which is a civic and business organization that has been in existence since the 1940s. It currently has 200 members influential in policy areas in the city. She reported that the GMC is working to become a “antiracism organization,” which she says is requiring organizational changes, changed power dynamics, and altered policies and practices. This transformation is consistent with her vision that “we as a community have to change our culture.” Taylor referenced the book, “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities“ by Andre Perry, remarking that it is an informative read about the challenges facing Black communities, including those in Milwaukee, that have resulted from years of racist policies.

Agreeing with Crump and Hinton, Taylor emphasized the need for significant investment in the city and added that it is important to address the “digital divide.” Lack of WiFi subscriptions and other forms of technology access are widespread in underserved neighborhoods in Milwaukee, she said, and some community members were trying to apply for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funds using their cell phones, which she noted is not possible. The GMC has worked with tech firms to bring in technology to underserved communities in the city. In addition, Taylor said that the GMC is “working very hard to try to ensure that we can have some additional revenue coming into the city” by pushing for a local usage sales tax, adding that this would supplement what is being provided by the philanthropic community. Her organization has been involved in commercial corridor revitalization and investments in small businesses in diverse neighborhoods. Furthermore, last summer, the GMC offered 150 college students virtual internships when other internships were canceled, providing needed funds for many attending college in the fall.

Boyle put forth thought-provoking questions from the virtual audience, including: How can people get more involved? Take time to learn about the issues through community education and books, buy from minority vendors, invest in Black and Brown businesses, and get involved in organizations that can have an impact, the panelists suggested. And what does a more equitable recovery look like? Systemic issues need to be first identified,” Hinton said, “and then you go dismantle those root causes.” We need to talk about antiracism and tell partners this is the expectation, remarked Crump, and “hold people accountable for what they said they were going to do.” The arguments put forth by the panelists support the key concept that tearing down racial barriers and investing in Black and Brown communities creates value for all groups of people in Milwaukee and beyond.

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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