Kept Poor?

The urban poverty of the United States is on the rise. Take Milwaukee, WI for example. The city is an increasingly popular tourist destination, mostly due to the Time Magazine-winning updated Art Museum. Regardless, it has one of the largest and isolated assemblies of poverty in the United States. Income continues to drop and unemployment rates are on the rise in the ‘inner city’ of Milwaukee due to a decrease in the number of low-skill jobs available in the increasingly white collar metro area. The decrease in the growth rate of the Milwaukee area will also become more noticeable soon, and it should not be a surprise when it is finally linked to having amassed overlooked poverty in the urban core.

Why should this not be a surprise? Three basic ideas illustrate this. (1) As unemployment increases, so does crime, historically. With this, more city resources are spent on crime prevention and incarceration and less on economic growth. (2) People are less likely to pour money into an area that is known to be crime-ridden, especially when the area does not carry the global recognition of a Washington, DC. (3) Mass poverty tends to lead people to trust others less often. Thus, fewer relationships are built or sustained within and across communities.

So, what’s to be done about high unemployment, which appears to be a major catalyst of rising crime rates? Perhaps ask yourself: if 50% of the white males in any given neighborhood were unemployed, what would be done about it? Does 50% seem a little high? Not according to an estimate provided by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 28, 2006. Of course the Journal Sentinel was referring to the estimated percentage of black adult males without jobs.

Some people may suddenly jump to a few thoughts. Let me summarize them here: (a) lazy, (b) each to his own, (c) I paid my way, and (d) what’s really stopping them?

Regardless of the ‘me v. them’ mentality automatically erected by these thoughts (that I would call typical reactions), I invite those with these thoughts to forget them for a moment and go back to my earlier question. For those of you without these thoughts, this question is for you, too.

If 50% of the white males in any given neighborhood of Milwaukee were unemployed, what would be done about it? I think that the answers are not too mysterious. Here are ten ideas:

(1) City officials would do a broad and deep analysis on a representative sample to determine the causes of unemployment.

(2) Neighbors, regardless of income restrictions, would reach out to the unemployed and offer creative ways to ensure food and shelter.

(3) City officials would establish an advisory council of white males from the representative sample and determine the methods that would work for these men to be able to use their skills to reclaim work.

(4) A nonprofit would establish a food drive that catered specifically to the likes and nutrition desires of the population.

(5) People would be very careful to refer to the white males as temporarily unemployed and never to label them as welfare clients or as lazy.

(6) City officials would establish comprehensive and subsidized skills training partnerships with local colleges and high schools.

(7) Business leaders would offer entry level positions on a rolling basis that included training programs.

(8) Day cares and local residents would establish childcare networks.

(9) Media would be involved in the “crisis of the white male” news story, garnering sympathy for the unemployed.

(10) City officials would dedicate money to thorough analysis of programs to ensure systematic program improvement.

It is time to give pause to this, though, and address the real struggle of white males who do not have jobs. Some white males have a hard time in life and are not able to secure jobs. I contend that this is a situation that probably involves some levels of discrimination and should not be written off just because a man is white. Parallel to this, though, I believe that it is highly unlikely that the isolation that black males in Milwaukee experience as a cohort would be similarly experienced by white males today. This being said, we need to do two things: (1) establish true job opportunities for all people; and (2) address the reasons that black males in Milwaukee are chronically unemployed. The first option here also speaks to other identities that would no doubt exist in any population, such as those who are not able bodied.

From here it is time for those economic leaders of Milwaukee who wield power to customize solutions that would achieve the above goals in regards to people in the ‘inner city.’ What has not been said outright is that the inability to aid the ‘inner city’ properly has been a case of class-ism and racism. Class-ism because people in higher classes continue to situate money in ways that it is only easily accessible to those in similar classes; racism because comprehensive solutions are easier to think of when we are thinking about helping white people. These are mentioned now because having knowledge of how a city has become a certain way means people can know that poverty and unemployment have not just somehow happened.

– Todd Wellman (c) 2006

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