Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee's poverty rate stands at 29.4%
by Bill Glauber and Ben Posten
September 19, 2012
The Great Recession is over, but the hangover remains in Milwaukee, according to estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Milwaukee remained one of America's 10 most impoverished big cities, with a poverty rate of 29.4% in 2011.
The figure was unchanged from a year earlier, signaling that the economic spiral that enveloped the city's poorest communities in recent years may have hit bottom.
"You can never be happy with these numbers, because they underscore the need we have to improve the economic situation for tens of thousands of people in our city," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.
"You can't have any joy in saying it's not worse than last year, but it's not worse than last year," he added. "I want to see improvement. This is something we deal with on a daily basis."
Milwaukee's poverty numbers tell a grim story of the city's struggle to overcome a difficult if not intractable problem. For a family of four, the poverty threshold was $22,350 in yearly income.
In all, 171,500 city residents, including 67,229 children, lived in poverty last year. The poverty rate among the city's children, though, actually dipped slightly from 46.1% in 2010 to 43% in 2011.
Among minorities, 41% of Milwaukee's black residents and 35% of the city's Hispanics were poor.
"One has to remember that hitting bottom for Milwaukee is still dreadful," said Joe Volk, chief executive officer of Community Advocates, which provides help to low-income people.
He said his organization has seen "a slight uptick" this year in people needing assistance to pay for utilities and put food on the table, but the increase was far less than in each of the three previous years.
"Our data would also show that the bad times of the recession have started to plateau," he said.
Volk added that as an economic recovery takes root, "the challenge for Milwaukee is to now grab the bull by the horns and make sure low-income people are not left behind."
Statewide, the poverty rate was flat over the past two years at 13%, with an estimated 725,797 people, including 236,730 children, living in poverty in Wisconsin in 2011.
"We shouldn't resign ourselves to the fact that nearly a quarter of a million Wisconsin children are living in poverty," said Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. "These figures underscore the need for lawmakers to maintain federal supports that help lift lower-income families above the poverty line."
Kelli Laduron of the Hunger Task Force sees the toll poverty takes on people as she delivers boxes filled with food staples to low-income older adults. She and another driver deliver about 8,500 of the boxes monthly in the Milwaukee area.
"I see new clients sign up all the time," she said of the program. "When we ask people how much they receive in Social Security and some say $700 a month - I don't know how they live on that. They worked their whole life, and this is not where they thought they would be."
During her deliveries Wednesday, Laduron stopped at Boulevard Apartments, 2627 W. Lapham St., where she received help unloading from 74-year-old Joe Luczak. A former construction worker, Luczak said he receives around $800 a month in Social Security. The box filled with goods like breakfast cereals, pasta, juices and canned fruits and vegetables helps him get through each month.
"I'm surviving," he said. "That's it."
Milwaukee Public Schools are also continuing to bear a burden caused by poverty. Around 83% of the system's students are eligible for free or reduced meals, Superintendent Gregory E. Thornton said.
"The challenges have not ceased," he said. "We're very encouraged by the fact that our kids are coming to school and are engaged."
Barrett said poverty is not an intractable problem for the city and pointed to improved graduation rates at Milwaukee Public Schools and more children participating in a summer reading program.
Barrett said he can see the poverty rate declining in future years but added, "It's going to take partnerships, businesses investing in this city, transportation allowing people to get to jobs, continuing to do the work in dealing with teen pregnancy and infant mortality."
Other data released by the Census Bureau:
In 2011, the median household income in the city of Milwaukee was $33,122, which was not statistically different from 2010. The county level was at $40,702. The overall median household income in Wisconsin was $50,395.
In Waukesha County, one of the wealthiest counties in the state, 5.4% of the population was in poverty, down from 6.3% in 2010.
In Wisconsin, 9% of residents went without health insurance last year, with an estimated 506,674 uninsured. That figure was statistically unchanged from 2010.
In Milwaukee County, 12.8% of residents were uninsured last year, ranking the county highest among the state's counties with populations greater than 65,000.
Meanwhile, the suburban counties of Washington (3.9%), Ozaukee (4.7%) and Waukesha (5.1%) had the lowest uninsured rates in the state.
National figures released will likely enter into the presidential campaign. Real median household income decreased from $51,144 in 2010 to $50,502 in 2011.
The number of people in poverty increased for the fourth consecutive year to 15.9% of the U.S. population. In all, 48.5 million people lived in poverty in 2011.
William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said the data indicated "it looks like we may have bottomed out in terms of the worst of it."
Click here to read this story on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website.