Milwaukee Rebuilding the Dream

Terrance Heath

Milwaukee Skyline The Congressional Progressive Caucus’s "Speakout For Good Jobs" tour rolls into Milwaukee, Wisconsin, tonight, on what could hardly be a more auspicious day for workers in that city, as Gov. Scott Walker’s bill stripping the state’s public workers of almost all collective bargaining rights goes into effect. Walker’s assault on public workers is only the most recent chapter of a story of decline much like Detroit’s.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, Milwaukee only just missed being among the top 10 metropolitan areas that have lost the most jobs since 2000. Fifty-three of the nation’s 100 metropolitan areas have lost private sector jobs in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Forty-seven gained jobs.) With 73,900 private sector jobs lost between May 2000 and May of this year — a 9.5% decline — Milwaukee comes in 11th. (Earlier today, the BLS reported that the Milwaukee metropolitan area had an unemployment rate of 8% in May.)

Many of those jobs were lost in a recession that’s left millions of Americans unemployed. According to the Department of Labor, Milwaukee lost 50,000 jobs in 2009ranking third after Las Vegas and Detroit, among the nation’s largest cities with the most job loss.

Like Detroit, Milwaukee has been hit hard both by the recession and the decline of manufacturing. The city has lost 56,000 manufacturing jobs, and those losses are a big reason why 34% of African American men in Milwaukee are unemployed.

Nationwide, African American unemployment stands at around 16 percent, significantly higher than the overall national average. It’s also at a level similar to those in the Depression-era.

In looking at the nationwide data on African American unemployment, one city in particular stands out: Milwaukee, where unemployment for African American men is 34 percent.

…There are, however, exceptions to the rule, like 22-year old Darius Smith, who has something he hasn’t had in a long time — a steady job.

Smith is part of a staggering problem. The city of Milwaukee lost 56,000 jobs in the recession, many in manufacturing, which used to provide entry-level employment.

Just 40 years ago, 8 out of 10 black men were employed. Most found jobs in manufacturing, where a kid coming out of high school used to be able to earn a decent wage and support a family, but not anymore.

Smith’s is perhaps one of many whose stories go untold in this recession — many of whom live in states like Wisconsin, where conservative legislators are hostile to extending unemployment benefits despite crisis-level unemployment in their cities — because they don’t register on a national level in same way the story of Detroit’s decline does. But the numbers are no less real.

The news from Milwaukee is not all bad, though. As Smith’s story exemplified, there are people and organizations doing the right thing in Milwaukee, and cities like it.

As the report says, this is just one program in a city where thousands are unemployed. Yet, Milwaukee is the first city in the country to launch such a program, at a time when many cities are and states are cutting back on the very services and programs that are most needed. It’s a small but encouraging sign that governments can refute the "cut-to-grow" conventional wisdom and choose instead to invest in putting people back to work.

The story of employment in Milwaukee is, sadly, duplicated in too many of our cities. But the story of what Milwaukee is doing to invest in putting men like Darius Smith to work is one that should be duplicated in cities across the country. Perhaps that’s why the Progressive Caucus is stopping there tonight, to "Speak Out for Good Jobs" in Milwaukee.

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