Free-Falling in Milwaukee: A Close-Up on One City's Middle-Class Decline

In the last 30 years, Milwaukee's middle class families went from a plurality to its smallest minority. Its poorest parts have a higher infant mortality rate than the Gaza Strip.

800px-Former_brewery_Pabst_Brewing_Company_in_Milwaukee_Wisconsin.jpg

MILWAUKEE -- As Washington and Madison fiddle, this city's middle class is slowly deteriorating.

First, the numbers. From 1970 to 2007, the percentage of families in the Milwaukee metropolitan area that were middle class declined from 37 to 24 percent, according to a new analysis by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. During the same period, the proportion of affluent families grew from 22 to 27 percent-while the percentage of poor households swelled from 23 to 31 percent. In short, Milwaukee's middle class families went from a plurality to its smallest minority. 

The biggest culprit is the disappearance of well-paying manufacturing jobs. Despite a promising recent uptick in high-end manufacturing, Milwaukee has suffered a 40 percent decline in manufacturing jobs since 1970, when Schlitz, Pabst and American Motors reigned. Instead of shrinking, the city's urban poverty is creeping outward toward suburbs.

Late Wednesday afternoon, that was evident in the Jefferson Elementary school of West Allis, a once solidly middle class suburb bordering Milwaukee. In a crowded school gymnasium, principal Shelly Strasser said that fifty percent of students now qualify for free or reduced price school lunch programs. In other local schools, the number is ninety percent.

"It breaks your heart," said Strasser, a West Allis native who said she now has homeless students. "That's something we've never seen as a district."

The change also emerges in Cudahy, a once middle class suburb just south of the city. As a child, Debby Pizur watched traffic jams form on local streets during factory shifts changes. Today, many of those factories are shuttered, Pizur works three jobs at the age of 59, and runs a non-profit that provides food, clothing and household items to the community's poor.

The number of families served by her center, "Project Concern," has doubled since she took over five years ago. Increasingly, families are "doubling and tripling up," she said, with parents, siblings and children moving in with one another.

In Milwaukee's poorest corners, the infant mortality rate is higher than that of the Gaza Strip, Colombia and Bulgaria

"I have no job," said Brenda, a woman who declined to give her last name and blushed as she picked up free food and clothing. "I haven't had a job for three years."

'YOU CAN'T MOVE OUT. YOU'RE STUCK.'

Milwaukee's poor, meanwhile, are poorer. A drive through the north side district of Alderman Ashanti Hamilton showed it. In the 1970s, the area was home to one of the most prosperous black communities in the nation. Two massive factories employed 15,000 workers.

"In those days, you could lose a job in the morning," recalled Joe Bova, a 69-year-old retired crime victim advocate. "And have another job after lunch."

Today, both plants have closed, run-down shops line derelict streets and Ashanti puts the unemployment rate for young black males at 50 percent. In Milwaukee's poorest corners, the infant mortality rate is higher than that of the Gaza Strip, Colombia and Bulgaria.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Business

Just In