By Damon Dorsey
President, Milwaukee Regional Economic Partnership
It doesn’t take a social scientist to tell us that poverty is a persistent problem in Milwaukee and other cities across the country. Poverty has been talked about for years as a problem that must be eradicated, eliminated and destroyed. And I agree that poverty must be eliminated but we seldom hear solutions for eliminating poverty. I propose that the only way to eliminate poverty is to eliminate the apparatus that sustains the poverty industry.
Recently, Aldermen Joe Davis and Ashanti Hamilton and NAACP President James Hall (the “Milwaukee 3”) took what many consider a rare step in resisting the constant attempts to prop-up or fund the Poverty Industry apparatus in Milwaukee: The apparatus that maintains poverty and regulates the poor, ensuring that the poor remain indefinitely trapped in poverty, is pervasive and deep.
The Milwaukee 3 insisted that funding $500,000 more for overtime of MPD officers is nothing more than the same old anti-poverty/ poverty maintenance approach that got us into this mess in the first place. In other words, the Milwaukee 3 had the courage to not support the traditional policies and strategies of the all-powerful poverty maintenance apparatus in Milwaukee; which makes the Milwaukee 3, well, truly anti-poverty. Now, that’s getting deep.
How deep is the Poverty Industry in Milwaukee? Every year about $2 billion is spent propping up the industry, making the Poverty Industry one of the largest and most well-funded industries in the city. The Poverty Industry is better funded than the economic drivers of innovation, exporting and entrepreneurship efforts combined. If it were a private firm, the Poverty Industry would be bigger than many of the largest firms in the region, including Badger Meter, Astronautics and Briggs and Stratton. The Poverty Industry has more resources than the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County combined.
Reallocating some or all of Poverty Industry funds for productive uses, such as infrastructure, workforce development, innovation and entrepreneurship is a viable and necessary alternative to the current apparatus, and will lead to many more jobs and a more competitive city.
The $2 billion Poverty Industry gets its revenue from a number of sources, including the following:
• Milwaukee Police Department, who exist solely to contain the effects of poverty: $300 million per year
• Milwaukee Public Schools, a de-facto poverty social agency: $600 million
• City of Milwaukee/Milwaukee County Departments: $250 million
• Milwaukee County Sheriff/ Prison: $250 million
• Rental Assistance: $34 million
• Energy Assistance: $65 million
• Food Assistance: $250 million
• Job Training/W2: $300 million
We can argue about the exact amounts and the sources but you get the point: About $2 billion per year is used to maintain poverty and regulate the poor, or in the vernacular of the Poverty Industry advocates “take care of the poor.” Of course the poor, a group of desperate, resilient, resourceful and amazing people probably are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, especially if they had a job.
The problem, of course, is that in the hyper-competitive global economy of the 21st century, growth industries are characterized by off-the-chain innovation, exporting and entrepreneurship; and dead-end industries are characterized by large numbers of unemployed Black men, hyper-segregation, a lack of entrepreneurship, bloated police departments, rampant crime and the total destruction of the family unit.
In the spectrum of global economic hubs, Milwaukee falls somewhere between Detroit and Cleveland but, if we can reign in the wild Poverty Industry beast, there may be hope. Where Milwaukee excels at segregation, it fails at tapping into the full creative potential of its minorities, whose energy and imagination are sorely needed to support an economy driven by innovation; where Milwaukee excels at the wanton incarceration of Black men, it fails at exporting products and growing our economy; and where Milwaukee excels at constantly developing new and refined mechanisms to spoon feed the poor the toothless sugar poverty, it fails at creating an army of minority entrepreneurs willing to work and, from the sweat of their brow, turn their businesses into the next Harley’s, Rockwells and Johnson Controls of the 21st century.
Yes, it’s true, we cannot build an economy on poverty and segregation. Joe Davis knows this from his experiences in South Africa, Ashanti Hamilton knows this from his experience with the foreclosure crisis, James Hall knows this from his efforts to confront racism and poor people know this because, well, they continue to wallow in the putrid pit of poverty – where there is no end in sight.
But, why can’t White liberals see this? Why can’t Mayor Tom Barrett see this? The answer: Once they acknowledge that the poverty industry is out of control, they will be forced to do the hard work of really restructuring the Milwaukee economy and creating jobs – especially for the poor, not just for those who maintain the apparatus of poverty.
Getting back to the Milwaukee 3 who dared to challenge the poverty apparatus: They know change is needed but they had no idea to what extent they were going up against a well-funded, megamammoth industry that is deeply entrenched into the political, cultural and economic fabric of a city that is literally under-siege by the poverty maintenance mindset.
The Milwaukee 3 also had no idea that if they were to be successful at dismantling the poverty apparatus they could set in motion the process of creating 200,000 jobs in the foreseeable; jobs that may now go to Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo. Yes, 200,000!
What am I talking about? What do I mean by 200,000 jobs? Well the Poverty Industry is a $2 billion dollar a year industry that currently creates jobs, primarily for a handful of local people who have the connections and, well, let’s admit it, the right skin-color to get those jobs (Black men definitely are not getting these jobs). We could leverage those funds and create much more bang for our buck: If that $2 billion was leveraged $4 dollars to every $1, that $2 billion could conceivably attract $8 billion of investment, for a total investment of $10 billion – per year. If all local stakeholders and other investors (i.e. pension funds) expected was a 8 percent return on investment (which is infinitely more than the poverty apparatus provides), the $10 billion would provide Milwaukee over the course of 20 to 30 years a total value of over $125 billion of investment, which could be used to retool the City’s infrastructure, workforce and economy to compete in the global marketplace. Just do the math.
Yes, what the Milwaukee 3 know and what many people are so angry about is that we are leaving about 200,000 jobs on the table, jobs that our children and grandchildren will want and need. Jobs that they deserve. Jobs that they should expect to get.
All that is standing in their way is a desire to eliminate the comfortable racial disparity and segregation that props up the poverty industry and maintains the poor in state of poverty. All that is standing in their way are leaders who choose to keep propping up the poverty apparatus with the same old policies and ideas, though these ideas produces no real value for Milwaukee.
All that is standing firmly in their way is a benign and unproductive poverty industry that is completely and utterly out of control.
At this point, though, all we can do is support and, if possible, join the Milwaukee 3 as they confront the mega-beast of a poverty industry apparatus that is just gone gut-out mad.
Contact Aldermen Davis and Hamilton at (414) 286-2221 and James Hall at (414) 562 – 1000. Tell them you support what they are trying to change. They would appreciate that, and our children and grandchildren.