Solving the Crisis of Job Quality in Milwaukee

Friday, July 5, 2013 at 9:24 AM by

Many of Milwaukee’s deep-seated problems with racial disparity and residential segregation, child poverty, and crime and incarceration, can be traced back to the shrinking number of high-quality jobs in the city, according to a new report from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

An alarmingly high number of people in Milwaukee work at poverty wages — nearly 100,000 workers, according to the report. These workers earn too little to keep a family of four out of poverty, even with full time, year-round work. Jobs that pay poverty wages are concentrated in food service, retail and residential health care. The graphic below, taken from the report, shows the demographics of workers earning poverty wages.


The current jobs scenario in Milwaukee is strikingly different than the job market there a generation ago. According to the report,

The median Milwaukee worker in 2012 has more education today than in 1979, and the Milwaukee economy produces 40 percent more income per person than it did in 1979. Even so, this more educated and productive worker brings home a lower wage than the (less educated, less productive) median worker did more than 30 years ago.

One effect of the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs and the rise of low-paying service jobs in Milwaukee is a widening of racial disparities in earnings. In 1979, the median income for a black worker in Milwaukee was 94% of that of a white worker, falling to 61% in 2012. This widening income gap reflects the shrinking manufacturing and production sector, which once employed more than half of black men in Milwaukee. Today, only 1 out of 7 black men in Milwaukee work in production.

The prevalence of poverty-wage jobs in Milwaukee is daunting, but COWS points out that a relatively straightforward solution is at hand. Raising the minimum wage would give low-wage workers an income boost, give a shot in the arm to the local economy, and help create a more inclusive version of economic prosperity. By raising the wage floor, we could address the racial disparities, poor health outcomes for children, and crime that hold Milwaukee back from achieving its maximum potential.

The full report can be read here: Raise the Floor Milwaukee: Toward Better Wages and Labor Standards for Low-Wage Workers.

Tamarine Cornelius

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