Fearful Symmetries

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12 November, 2013

Soglin Looks To Get Tough on Poverty

Finally! It was good to read this morning that Mayor Soglin has started advocating for a new economic plan for Madison to address the growing poverty and racial disparities here in Madison (and Dane County at large). This is why I voted for him. Mayor Cieslewicz really turned me off with the vast amount of political capital he spent on pushing the Edgewater Hotel remodeling plus the fact that he drank the Richard Florida Kool-Aid on a near daily basis. Urban analyst Aaron Renn once noted that "the creative class doesn’t have much in the way of coattails" yet it seemed that the only things in Cieslewicz's arsenal to combat rising poverty in Madison were tech startups and amenities for the vaunted "creative class".

Recently a group called Race for Equity released a report detailing vast economic and educational disparities between whites and blacks in Dane County. Amongst the findings:

-- In 2011, the unemployment rate was 25.2 percent for Blacks compared to just 4.8 percent for whites. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 18 percent for Blacks and 8 percent for whites.

-- In the same year, "over 54 percent of African American Dane County residents lived below the federal poverty line, compared to 8.7 percent of whites, meaning Dane County Blacks were over six times more likely to be poor than whites."

-- More than 74 percent of Black children live under the poverty level as opposed to just 5.5 percent of white children. The report suggested "that this 13 to 1 disparity ratio may constitute one of the widest Black/white child poverty gaps that the Census Surveys reported for any jurisdiction in the nation."

-- "In 2011, African American youth in the Madison Public School District had about a 50 percent on-time high school graduation rate, compared to 85 percent for white students."

-- "African American adolescents, while constituting less than 9 percent of the county's youth population, made up almost 80 percent of all the local kids sentenced to the state's juvenile correctional facility in 2011."


To address these issues

Soglin released a 15-page Madison Employment Plan that will focus on five areas over the next year: housing, quality child care, transportation, health and education/employment.

He said a team of government, community and business leaders needs to work together quickly in three areas:

Youth internships

Building trades apprenticeships

The creation of more full-time — not just part-time — jobs for adults

...

Increasing the number of full-time jobs overall is “as big as the universe itself,” Soglin said. “It is simply creating more jobs in locally based companies.”


There's much to like here although I am skeptical of the notion that existing companies can provide all the work that is needed. A recent blog post by Pete Saunders remarked upon a report from last year on the Chicago mega-region, i.e. - the area from Milwaukee south along the Lake Michigan shore to northwest Indiana. This region has the same racial disparities as Madison and what caught my attention was this part of the report: "Skills mismatch lies at the heart of these challenges. Low-skilled workers are not finding jobs, while manufacturers can’t fill medium-skilled job vacancies." If creating full-time jobs that pay well enough to support families is the goal, Madison needs to look for new blood, in my humble opinion. One would think that existing companies would already be creating more jobs if the demand was there.

A few things that come to mind in light of all this:

1) Money is tight. Every drop of utility will have to be wrung from the money available.

2) Governor Walker has declared Wisconsin to be open for business. Can Madison/Dane County have him put his money where his mouth is? Can the WEDC be of help in increasing/diversifying the range of employment opportunities here?

3) Partnerships. Can Madison/Dane County partner with neighboring municipalities?

4) Can we better leverage our existing strengths? Take, for instance, Dane County's agricultural sector. Can we leverage it into something more than a public market?

5) We've got Jennifer Cheatham, Nancy Hanks and a whole cabal of former Chicago Public School system administrators running the Madison public schools right now. They bring a wealth of experience from a system struggling with large numbers of poor minority students. Let's listen to them. We should also be open-minded about revisiting Kaleem Caire's Madison Prep Academy. I was certainly ambivalent about it and thought tweaking was necessary but, as my political science professor Charles Anderson described his philosophy of pragmatic liberalism, if something isn't working, try something else.

In the years 2000-2005, the top two counties that people moved to Madison from were Cook and Milwaukee - Chicago and Milwaukee. It seems likely that a fairly significant number of these people were poor minorities. If Lisa Bullock's story is any indication, that trend hasn't stopped.

Bringing together "government, community and business leaders" is a good idea. Prof. Anderson would call this a community of inquiry. But Soglin needs to keep this issue front and center. He cannot keep quiet about it for a Friedman unit or two. Instead, he must keep talking about it, keep explaining how investing in children mired in poverty and their unemployed parents will benefit Madison and Dane county as a whole. Soglin, et al need to make a case to the business community that his plan will benefit them; they need to make a case to the "creative class" explaining how his plan will benefit them; they need to explain to the very people they seek to help what the plan is and how it will help them. Make sure these people have some control over their lives instead of it just being Big Daddy Soglin dictating everything.

It's going to be a long row to hoe which is why the mayor needs to advocate for his plan loudly, publicly, and often.

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|| Palmer, 1:53 PM

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