Unemployment for Black Men in Milwaukee Demands Immediate Action
UWM study of 2010 census data finds record low employment in Milwaukee
In the wake of the 2008-’09 recession, black male employment in metro Milwaukee plunged to the lowest levels on record, according to a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The data highlight a renewed setback to an urban region that for years has helped set national extremes for poverty and unemployment, following a decades-long collapse of the city’s manufacturing economy that left a depression in the urban core.
According to the UWM analysis of the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, only 44.7% of the area’s working-age black males ages 16 to 64 were employed in 2010, which is “the lowest level in metro Milwaukee ever recorded in census data.” Only two of the nation’s 40 largest metro areas analyzed in the study – Buffalo and Detroit – reported lower black male employment rates in 2010 than Milwaukee.
“No metro area has witnessed more precipitous erosion in the labor market for black males over the past 40 years than has Milwaukee,” according to the report, which echoed findings in recent years by the Journal Sentinel. “The 2010 data, however, revealed a new nadir for black male employment in Milwaukee.”
Employment levels for the region’s black men declined sharply from 52.9% in 2008, which was the year when over-indebted banks, hobbled by subprime mortgage debt, curtailed lending and threw the brakes on the broader economy, triggering the deepest and longest recession since the Depression of the 1930s.
The decrease in black employment is even more drastic compared with 1970, the year when both the city and the nation approached their respective peaks in industrial employment. In 1970, Milwaukee led the nation in factory employment for black laborers with nearly three in four holding a job (a 73.4% employment rate), which is 28.7 percentage points higher than the current record low.
That 1970-2010 shift in black male employment – a “four-decade labor market meltdown” – represents the widest percentage change among the American cities in the ranking, wider than Detroit (28.6 percentage points), Cleveland (26.0) and Chicago (23.8).
The comparisons to 1970 go back to the pre-global era when national economies were more insular and China had not yet begun its reforms. Manufacturing jobs in those days often required little more than a high school diploma, while today’s factories are high-tech environments that demand skills in computers and math.
“It was a different world in 1970,” said Marc Levine, who heads the UWM Center for Economic Development, which released the report.
Other findings in the 41-page report:
Northern industrial cities such as Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit fare worse for black male employment prospects than southern cities such as Atlanta, Nashville, Houston and Charlotte.
For black men in the prime of their working lives (ages 25-54), Milwaukee fell to a record low employment level of 52.7% in 2010, dropping to the bottom of the 40 major cities in the report – lower than Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
In 1970, when Milwaukee boasted one of the nation’s densest concentrations of factory jobs, black male employment nearly matched the white level (73.4% vs. 85.9%, for a gap of 12.5 percentage points). By 2010, the black-white gap widened to 32.7 percentage points – the widest among the 40 major cities.
More African-American men from Milwaukee were admitted to Wisconsin correctional facilities in an average year in the 2000s than were employed at the end of the decade in factories in the city of Milwaukee.
The recession was brutal for nearly every sector of the U.S. economy. The report’s benchmark year of 2010 coincides with the end of the only decade since the 1930s that saw no net increase in jobs.
But the urban economy of Milwaukee was struggling even before the recession began. “The city of Milwaukee, where almost 90% of the region’s black males live, has lost over three-quarters of its industrial jobs since the 1960s,” the report says.
Milwaukee’s rapid exodus of manufacturers is a major reason for its low level of black employment, Levine said.
Many blacks leave the labor force for other reasons, most notably due to “mass incarceration,” it says. “An average 5,000 working-age black males have been incarcerated annually in Milwaukee since the early 2000s, a growing number for nonviolent drug offenses,” which in turn removes them from the government’s tally of the active labor force.
Another factor behind low employment rates: inconvenient and inefficient transportation links with the suburbs and surrounding counties, where manufacturing has fared better than in the city, Levine said.
Unlike many studies of employment levels, which extrapolate estimates from small monthly government population samples, the UWM study used data from the U.S. Census, which is deemed more accurate and reliable.
The study also avoids the most common barometer of jobs, which is the monthly unemployment rate, which statisticians concur is problematic. The main problem is that unemployed Americans vanish from the unemployment tally because of a statistical quirk of U.S. statistics, which only count those who actively are looking for work. That excludes those who quit looking because they are discouraged, or go to jail, go back to school or care for a child or parent.
“The mass incarceration of black males in the U.S. since the 1970s has artificially deflated the unemployment rate by removing thousands of working-age black males – who otherwise would be counted in the employment and unemployment statistics – from the labor force,” the report said.
To read the report, go to the UWM Center for Economic Development home page: www4.uwm.edu/ced