Another weekend, another fight involving the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The latest incident was a near-brawl that forced the early cancellation of a Rufus King – Riverside boys basketball game. Unfortunately, incidents like this reinforce the common outstate perception that Milwaukee is in a complete state of dysfunction.
I assure you, it is not.
Today, like every other day, thousands of Milwaukee residents are going about the daily minutiae of urban life without incident. While understandable that day-to-day life in Wisconsin’s biggest city does not generate headlines, it is an important point to remember when examining the very real problems facing Milwaukee.
School violence, persistently low-levels of K-12 achievement, black male unemployment, and co-sleeping deaths are all are symptoms of entrenched pockets of dysfunction that demand attention. These pockets of dysfunction, however, do not define Milwaukee or its citizenry.
The city’s cultural attractions, neighborhoods, universities, and corporate centers are as much a part of Milwaukee as its social problems; which is why the recent criticism of Tom Barrett’s support of the residency rule for City of Milwaukee employees is misguided. The general critique is that Barrett would rather trap people in the city than work to make Milwaukee a place where people want to live. I am not often defending Mayor Barrett, but this line of criticism ignores a basic truth: People actually do want to live in the city.
Last May, Alderman Willie Hines pointed out that the most recent recruitment for new Milwaukee firefighters and police officers generated 5,000 and 3,500 applicants respectively. All of the applicants knew about the residency rule and wanted the job anyways.
More philosophically, allowing organizations to set terms of employment is perfectly in line with free market principals. Employers have a right to set their terms and employees have a right to take, or not to take a job. As Barrett stated (I am paraphrasing), city employees not wanting to live in Milwaukee are free to leave the city, and their jobs.
No doubt Milwaukee needs work (A list of proposals in a 2004 WPRI report is a great place to start), but it is not on life-support. People of all stripes make their home in the cultural and economic center of the state not because they must, but because it is where they want to live.
George Wagner brings out the old “What’s the matter with Kansas” argument in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. For those unfamiliar, “What’s the matter with Kansas” was a book written in 2004 by Thomas Frank that argued Kansas residents supported Republicans despite it being against their economic interest. The implication is that Kansas conservatives are ignorant and/or being distracted by social issues.
Wagner applies the sprit of the argument to income inequality, citing a finding that Americans, “even traditional Republican constituencies,” support a more equal income distribution. Yet, Americans somehow do not support raising taxes on CEOs. Why? Wagner says the reason is ignorance, writing: “most Americans believe that wealth distribution is a lot more equal than it actually is.”
I agree with Wagner that growing income inequality is a potential problem. Data from the Department of Revenue indicates that between 1996 and 2009 the percentage of all Wisconsin tax filers with annual incomes between $20,000 and $70,000 has decreased from 43% to 40% while the percentage of all filers with incomes above $200,000 increased from 0.78% to 1.71%. To the extent that is attributable to an inequality of opportunity, it is troubling.
However, it is not clear why a higher percentage of Wisconsinites are earning more than $200,000 today than in 1996. More wealthy Wisconsin residents can be viewed as a positive, especially given that the percentage of total state tax revenue being collected from filers earning over $200,000 annually has increased from 14.9% to 25.3% between 1996 and 2009. More importantly, the increase in wealthy Wisconsin residents is certainly not the reason that 46% of Milwaukee children are impoverished, as Wagner alludes. Increasing taxes on the rich, a solution that Wagner argues Americans are too ignorant to support, will not in and of itself decrease poverty.
I’ll call this the housing project principal, based on that well-meaning urban policy failure. People needed better housing, so cities built public housing projects. It solved the immediate problem facing the homeless and those with inadequate housing, but did nothing to address the myriad of social issues of which a lack of adequate housing was the most obvious symptom. Yes, poverty is a lack of income, but it is so much more. Simply taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor does not address urban education failures, infant mortality, inadequate health-care, crime, or any other of the social problems that are also symptoms and causes of poverty.
Growing income inequality is a problem if it means that the United States is no longer an egalitarian society where everyone has a chance at success. One of the reasons I blog so often on urban education is that addressing policy failures in that arena is necessary for our society to get closer to true equality of opportunity. The discomfort I and others have with proposals to simply soak the rich comes not from ignorance, but a desire to enable success rather than punish it.