The city of Milwaukee seems to face the best and worst of times – with perhaps a bigger economic divide than ever before. On the one hand, Downtown is booming, and business leaders in a recent survey all but gushed about how good things are. On the other hand, recent reports show the city has the eighth-highest rate of poverty and the worst achievement gap between black and white students.


A recent survey of 89 chief executive officers commissioned by the Downtown Business Improvement District, was filled with good news. The vast majority of CEOs believes the business climate is better than three years ago and will be even better three years from now. The average wage of Downtown employees was $30.86 per hour (about $62,000 a year), compared to the average metro wage of $18.79 per hour. CEOs report that sales and profits are growing, employment is up and expected to keep rising, and that Downtown is a safe place to do business. A Downtown location, many noted, gives the company prestige.


There is some concern about the increasing density, partly because it makes parking more expensive, but density also brings restaurants, nightlife and other positives praised by CEOs. These amenities were cited by Manpower Inc. when it decided to move its headquarters Downtown.


But one issue jumped out in the study: concern about a future labor shortage. This, of course, relates to the other Milwaukee, the one that scores so poorly sociologically. While there is reason to be wary of the Census Bureau finding that 26 percent of people in the city were poor in 2006 (mid-decade reports have often turned out to be inaccurate), the rate was a still dismal 21 percent in 2000. And while the reading gap study showed fourth-grade white students in Wisconsin were at the national average, it showed that black students were at the very bottom.


What does this mean for Milwaukee? Back in the 1990s, political leaders like Mayor John Norquist and Gov. Tommy Thompson were convinced that welfare as we knew it was drawing poor people to Milwaukee and creating a culture of poverty. Well, that culture is still here and there is little evidence W2 has helped people rise out of poverty.


Nor, to judge by school achievement scores, has school choice delivered what its backers promised. Yes, there are some good choice schools out there, but there are also good ones among the Milwaukee Public Schools. And yes, school choice may have put more pressure on MPS to improve. But it’s difficult to see an overall impact on school performance in the city. And without that improvement, poor students will have problems overcoming their environment and getting the skills they need to solve the labor shortage.


It was striking to read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Sunday roundtable of experts on childhood poverty. There was lots of compassion expressed and lots of exhortation to citizens to be concerned, but little in the way of concrete solutions suggested.


With the end of the old welfare system, the vast majority of the poor are the working poor. They’ve already proven they have a work ethic, but aren’t making enough to rise out of poverty. The earned income tax credit still seems the quickest way to close this gap, both through state legislation to supplement the federal benefit and through city outreach efforts to make sure everyone eligible for the credit is getting it.


The Journal Sentinel’s Silly Statistics


Sometimes investigative reporters spend time doing research, only to find it doesn’t mean much. Of course they hate to waste all that time, so the paper may find some way to use the stuff anyway. So it was last week, when the Journal Sentinel ran a remarkably silly “watchdog report” suggesting the city’s Neighborhood Safety Initiative might have pushed criminals into other neighborhoods.


The story’s chief piece of evidence for this crackpot theory is that aggravated assault had increased in two aldermanic districts outside the zone where police patrols had increased. But as criminologist Stan Stojkovic, dean of UW-Milwaukee’s school of social welfare, notes, “the overwhelming majority of aggravated assaults – well over 80 percent – involve people who know each other.”


Let us imagine the conversation that therefore must have gone on when these assaults occurred in Milwaukee: “Say, before I assault you, would you mind if we travel a couple miles east, so we can get away from this enhanced police presence?”


The theory is so silly that the JS reporters could find no expert – not a single criminologist or police officer – arguing in favor of it. The only support for it came from one citizen who was a victim of crime and a couple aldermen whose districts didn’t get the added police. Aldermen, of course, always complain when their districts don’t get some city service; it proves only that they’d like to get reelected.


As Stojkovic explains, most crimes are committed in the same neighborhood where the perpetrators live. That’s why the “displacement theory” – that an added police presence will move crime elsewhere – has never been proven to have much significance, he says.


The Legacy of Dave Schulz

The death of former Milwaukee County Executive Dave Schulz last week brought to mind the spring of 1988, when Schulz and John Norquist brought a new generation of leadership to once-stodgy Milwaukee. It was Schulz who was far more articulate and imposing as a campaigner, and who scored a more resounding electoral victory, but Mayor Norquist who ended up having far more impact on the city.


Schulz once referred to his election as a “hostile takeover,” which it certainly was. The first two of Milwaukee’s county executives, John Doyne and William O’Donnell, had both come from the county board, and O’Donnell was expected to continue until he felt like retiring, when then-county board Chairman Tom Ament would succeed to the top spot. Schulz, a one-time head of the county parks department who had been fired by O’Donnell (for endorsing Norquist for mayor), had rudely interrupted the line of succession by defeating O’Donnell.


Schulz immediately met with resistance and resentment from Ament and other county board members. In a government that was riddled with cronyism, Schulz dared to aspire to civics textbook-styled good government.


Civics, as it turned out, lost. Schulz was tremendously knowledgeable about government, but tone deaf to politics. His ego was huge, he couldn’t take criticism, and he was all but incapable of listening. He couldn’t learn from business and community leaders, from political opponents or supporters, because when they met with Schulz, he did all the talking. As Schulz dug in his heels, his decision-making became all the more erratic.


Once Schulz left (in 1992, after just one term), things went back to normal, Ament succeeded to county executive, and courthouse cronyism reached obscene heights with the 2000 pension plan and its lucrative payoffs to insiders. Ultimately, that brought the second hostile takeover, this time by Scott Walker. Walker is almost the exact opposite of Schulz: adroit politically, but often deaf to true public-policy concerns.


No, Dave Schulz was not much of a politician, but he was a marvelous theoretician of good government. He will be missed more for what he symbolized than for what he achieved.


The Buzz:

-Last week the New York Times ran a front-page story on an international study showing that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not. The Journal Sentinel didn’t seem to think it had much interest for readers. Among other things, the study found that in Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex education programs focus on abstinence, the estimated abortion rate is 54 per 1,000 women, compared to 21 per 1,000 in the U.S. that same year.


-One of the smartest and most interesting blogs in the state is written by former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who often trades blows with talk radio’s Charlie Sykes. In his last column Soglin offered to pay Charlie Sykes $5,000 if he moves to Colorado. Sykes has held up that state’s tax rates as a model for Wisconsin. I have a feeling there may be many who would happily contribute to that moving fund. Sykes could make a mint.


And don’t miss our new column, The Sports Nut.

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