By: Brian Sikma
After ninety-six months as mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett has presided over an astonishing collapse of African American jobs. Barrett, who became mayor in 2004 after demolishing the campaign of Milwaukee’s first and only African American mayor, Marvin Pratt, has repeatedly frustrated minority community leaders who believe he has done too little to solve the ongoing crisis.
Milwaukee accounts for a significant majority of Wisconsin’s African American population. By two different measurements, the unemployment rate and the jobless rate, African Americans have suffered devastating job losses in recent years.
According to the Center On Wisconsin Strategy, (COWS) a progressive leaning think tank funded in part by Wisconsin taxpayers, the statewide African American unemployment rate in 2005 stood at 10.9%. That was just 1.1 percentage points higher than the jobless rate among African Americans in 2000. But in 2010, the latest year for which COWS data appears to be available, Wisconsin’s African Americans suffered from a 25% unemployment rate.
In just five years, Wisconsin’s African American unemployment rate jumped 150%, with most of those suffering from the crisis living in Mayor Barrett’s Milwaukee.
At the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM), one regularly measured statistic is the jobless rate, which differs from the unemployment rate in that it counts workers who have stopped looking for work and have thus “exited” the labor force. The number of people who have stopped looking for a job or cannot hold some jobs (such as felons) is important because it measures the cumulative impact of joblessness and presents a bigger picture of the economy as it is experienced by a particular demographic.
UWM professor Marc Levine has kept regular track of African American joblessness in the metro Milwaukee area. In 2007, 51.1% of African American males in the Milwaukee region were without a job. By 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, the figure had crept up to 55.3%.
When asked why he did not endorse his fellow Democrat Tom Barrett in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, former Milwaukee Mayor Marvin Pratt cited Barrett’s incompetence in addressing the African American unemployment rate as the single biggest factor in his decision to endorse Barrett’s opponent.
Another African American community leader, Mikel Holt, has repeatedly expressed frustration with Barrett’s handling of the African American jobs crisis. In a recent column blasting white Democrats for their treatment of African American Democrats, Holt alleged that his comments created a stir for his supposed “blasphemously decrying the political status quo which includes the failure of those supposedly representing our interests to address the nation leading Black unemployment and poverty rates” of Milwaukee.
Since taking office Governor Scott Walker, who previously served as Milwaukee County Executive, has planned a series of initiatives designed to jump start job creation in Milwaukee’s African American areas. The final product, a package of plans with a total price of $100 million, was unveiled earlier this month. Walker’s campaign recently argued that it is the City of Milwaukee that has consistently dragged the statewide jobs numbers down with most of the jobs lost in the state being lost in Milwaukee.
As Barrett works to pitch his record to voters across Wisconsin, his record on jobs for the African American community remains an Achilles heel. Typically a reliable Democratic voting bloc, African Americans have a history of lower voter turnout in elections scheduled outside of November. With experts expecting the outcome of the election on June 5 to be razor thin, frustrated minority voters upset at the skyrocketing unemployment rate and high joblessness found in their community may be unmotivated enough to deny Barrett a few thousand crucial votes.
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