The city of Milwaukee was once a prosperous, thriving metropolis. For years it was the world’s foremost beer-producing city, and home to four of the largest breweries on earth (Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller). Almost every major American brewery, in fact, had at least one factory in Milwaukee. These employed thousands of local residents in jobs that formed the foundation of the city’s middle class. Other major corporations in the city during the first half of the twentieth century included the A. F. Gallun & Sons leather tanning company; the machinery manufacturer Allis-Chalmers; the heavy-mining equipment producer Bucyrus Erie Company; the Falk Corporation, producer of industrial power transmission products; the electrical component maker Cutler-Hammer; and the A.O. Smith Corporation, a major manufacturer of automotive frames.
Politically, Milwaukee has not had a Republican mayor since 1908. Every mayor since then has been a Democrat—with the exception of three who were openly Socialist. The first of the Socialists—in fact the first Socialist mayor of any major American city—was Emil Seidel, who held office from 1910-12; he also ran for U.S. Vice President in 1912, on the Socialist Party of America ticket. In 1916 Daniel Webster Hoan became Milwaukee’s second Socialist mayor, and his 24-year tenure in office was the longest continuous Socialist administration in American history. The city’s third Socialist mayor was Frank Paul Zeidler, who served three terms from 1948-60. A vocal supporter of the nascent civil rights movement, Zeidler and his administration oversaw the large-scale construction of public housing as a means of promoting racial and economic justice. Zeidler spoke out forcefully in favor of what he termed “public enterprise,” the notion that government could uplift the condition of the poor via the efficient dispensation of taxpayer-funded public services.
By the end of Zeidler’s mayoralty in 1960, Milwaukee’s black population had nearly quintupled during the preceding 15 years, from 13,000 in 1945 to more than 62,000 in 1960. A major cause of this trend was the massive northward migration of Southern blacks which was set in motion by the outbreak of World War II, and which transformed African Americans from a largely rural to a mostly urban people. Beginning in the early 1940s, millions of black workers from the South boarded buses and trains and headed to Northern cities, like Milwaukee, to fill many of the jobs vacated by the nearly 16 million white men who had gone off to war. Demand for black labor was heightened further by the now-urgent requirements of military-equipment production.
As Milwaukee’s black population grew, the burgeoning civil rights movement began to make its presence felt in the city. One of the more noteworthy local figures in the movement was Father James Groppi, a Catholic priest who in 1965 became especially involved in the crusade against housing discrimination.
But local black radicals, allied ideologically with the black militancy that was sweeping many American cities in the Sixties, were wholly dissatisfied with what they viewed as the inadequate pace of racial reforms. And in the summer of 1967 the race riots that rocked Detroit and Newark sparked a similar—though less devastating—outburst in Milwaukee. All told, the Milwaukee disturbances resulted in 3 deaths, about 100 injuries, and 1,740 arrests.
In response to the rioting, Democrat Henry Maier, who served as mayor of Milwaukee from 1960-88, swiftly unveiled a “39-Point Program” designed to address the inner-city problems of poverty and racism that liberal Democrats widely cited as the causes of the riots. Alternatively dubbed the “Little Marshall Plan,” this program sought to enlist government at all levels—local, state, and federal—to pour money into initiatives like housing construction, youth programs, and “community renewal” as a means of pacifying an angry populace. But in the eyes of local black leftists, it was too little, too late. As Mrs. Vel Phillips, a black member of Milwaukee’s Common Council, said in April 1968, the mayor’s 39-point program had failed to demonstrate any “visible effect on the root causes” of ghetto unrest. “Every day is growing worse,” she continued. “Hope goes a long way toward keeping things cool, but Negroes never get anything concrete to hang their hopes on. I don’t believe in violence, and I hope we don’t have any more. But we’d all better realize that many young Negroes have reached the point where they’re ready and willing to die because they figure they have nothing to lose.”
When the Sixties ended, Milwaukee was still known chiefly for its manufacturing. As of 1970, seven of the city’s top ten companies were engaged in that industry; together they employed nearly 47,000 people. But as the cost of manufacturing in the U.S. skyrocketed in subsequent decades—in large measure because of the unsustainably lavish deals that pro-Democrat unions had repeatedly negotiated on behalf of their dues-paying members—many of these businesses elected to move their operations abroad. Between 1970 and 2011, Milwaukee lost no fewer than 40% of its manufacturing jobs—a trend that dealt a severe economic blow to the entire city. From 1970 to 2007, the percentage of families in the Milwaukee metro area that were middle-class declined from 37% to 24%, while the percentage of households that were poor spiked from 23% to 31%.
Today, per capita income in Milwaukee is $19,199 (32% below the national average); median household income is $35,823 (33% below the national average); and the poverty rate is 28.3% (nearly double the national average).
While joblessness and poverty plague the lives of so many Milwaukeeans, the ever-present threat of crime may be an even larger affliction for them. Milwaukee today has a violent crime rate that is 2.6 times greater than the national average, including a robbery rate of 4.4 times the national average and a murder rate that is triple the national average. African Americans are involved in these crimes in highly disproportionate numbers. In 2012, for instance, fully 80% of all homicide victims in the city were black, as were three-fourths of the known suspects.
The children of Milwaukee, meanwhile, have their own heavy cross to bear. Though the city’s public school system annually spends some $14,200 (about one-third more than the national average) in taxpayer funds on the education of each K-12 student in its jurisdiction, the the overall high-school graduation rate in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is a paltry 62.8%—far below Wisconsin’s 87% statewide average. On standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests administered in 2013 to measure students’ academic abilities:
- Only 18% of Milwaukee’s fourth-graders scored as proficient or better in math.
- Only 11% of Milwaukee’s eighth-graders scored as proficient or better in math.
- Only 16% of Milwaukee’s fourth-graders scored as proficient or better in reading.
- Only 13% of Milwaukee’s eighth-graders scored as proficient or better in reading.
Notably, in 1990 the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a bill creating the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the first publicly funded voucher initiative in the United States. Though lawmakers initially restricted it to just 1,000 low-income public school students within the city, MPCP has since grown to become the largest voucher program in America, serving more than 20,000 students. A 2011 study published by School Choice Wisconsin indicated that students in the MPCP had a graduation rate 18% higher than their counterparts in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Moreover, like other voucher programs across the county, the MPCP operates much more efficiently, from an economic standpoint, than the public school system. As the Heritage Foundation noted: “At $6,442 per scholarship, the vouchers are less than half the $15,034 spent by MPS.”
Regardless of these facts, however, the teachers unions have fought tooth-and-nail against the MPCP. In 2013, for instance, Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, denounced efforts to expand the use of vouchers as “slash and burn” measures designed to “destroy public schools.” The City Journal notes:
“According to the union-led anti-school-choice coalition, the problem with vouchers is that they are likely to cream off the best and brightest kids presently attending inner-city public schools, leaving only the most disadvantaged and academically unprepared children. Yet almost in the same breath, opponents of vouchers contend that those ‘cream of the crop’ children and their parents are too stupid to avoid being victimized by educational charlatans. Dire warnings about ‘witchcraft’ schools, ‘Farrakhan’ schools, and ‘creationist’ schools greedily waiting to get their hands on voucher money have been stock features in the teachers’ union propaganda.”
Another Milwaukee entity that strongly opposes voucher programs is the Educators’ Network for Social Justice (ENSJ), an alliance of classroom teachers and post-secondary instructors who have allied themselves with the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County and a number of local Democrat politicians. Committed to “promoting pro-justice curricula and policies so that all students in the Milwaukee area are better served,” ENSJ also opposes the use of standardized tests to measure student achievement and aptitude. In 2008, members of ENSJ and the organization Rethinking Schools co-founded a Social Studies Task Force designed to articulate concerns about the content of a social studies textbook series that was up for adoption by the Milwaukee Public Schools. ENSJ’s major objection was that the textbooks devoted insufficient attention to the “racism,” “anti-Semitism,” “stereotypes,” and “discrimination” that, by ENSJ’s telling, had always been a major part of American history. Yet another bone of contention was that the books did not discuss the fact that some early U.S. presidents were slave owners. According to ENSJ, it is impossible to “even minimally understand U.S. history” without exploring “racism,” “the dispossession of Native Americans from their lands,” “slavery and lynchings,” or the “anti-Chinese riots at the turn of the century in which hundreds were killed.” “By omitting the ‘r’ word” from their historical narrative, adds ENSJ, “texts help to obscure racism’s relationship to economic exploitation—whether in the case of slavery, the theft of Indian and Mexican land, the underpayment and mistreatment of Chinese railroad workers in the mid-19th century, or the use of Third World sweatshop workers today.”
As a consequence of the poverty, crime, unemployment, and dysfunctional school system that have become the hallmarks of life in Milwaukee, the city’s population has declined markedly in recent decades, from 741,000 in 1960 to just 599,000 today. An estimated 5,000 houses—mostly in impoverished neighborhoods—are vacant and abandoned throughout the city.
EDITORS NOTE: This piece was originally posted in May 2014.