“The President’s Perspective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
When talking about how we move Milwaukee forward, poverty must be a primary topic of discussion. As we see downtown continue to develop and grow, it is easy to let that put a mask over the parts of our city that are still reeling from deindustrialization and the 2008 financial crisis. I do not mean to say that we should dwell on this negative aspect of Milwaukee, nor should we preach a message of poverty to the choir of people that live it out each day. However, I do believe we need to take a minute to think about the poverty in our City and look at the ways we can see a solution. As MSN reported this past July, Milwaukee is one of the municipalities most impacted by extreme poverty. This can no longer be accepted as our reality.
The first thing to reflect on is that the challenges that keep people in poverty are interconnected. A quality education can help lift a child from poverty, but is probably not the catch-all solution if that child does not have quality health care, a stable home, and general safety when they leave the school grounds.
An individual getting a job can help with financial stability, but if their housing costs more than one-third of their monthly salary, we know that they will be burdened by those payments. We have to look at poverty not as an issue that can be solved by fixing one challenge, but by elevating people in multiple ways at once. It is a daunting task, but is the only way we can really see change in peoples’ lives.
The second thing to remember is that poverty and unemployment are two different things. We are constantly inundated with the idea that we can solve poverty by bringing in new jobs and getting people employed. Employment provides a level of financial stability that can have a profound impact on one’s life, but not all jobs are created equal. Milwaukee is filled with people that society would label “the working poor”. People that have jobs, work tirelessly to be the best employee they can be and still struggle to make ends meet. Job creation cannot be the solution if people still have to work multiple jobs or work weeks longer than 40 hours to put food on the table. It is imperative that we don’t just focus on connecting our residents to any job, but one that is family sustaining and affords an enjoyable life. Doing so is not impossible.
People are often surprised when I say this, but we actually have a perceived labor shortage in Milwaukee. There are numerous family-sustaining job opportunities in our city, just waiting for applicants. Organizations like Employ Milwaukee, Milwaukee JobsWork, Wisconsin God Squad, WRTP Big-Step and more are doing work to connect people to these jobs, but we still see these opportunities left open. Creating a stronger employment pipeline is important to solving poverty, but, like I said, a job isn’t enough.
Family-sustaining employment can be a part of the solution to poverty, but our history shows that is not enough to maintain a high quality of life. We know that Milwaukee was hit hard by job loss during deindustrialization, but the real tragedy is that black and brown communities were excluded from accumulating wealth that they could use to recover and reposition themselves for future success. A wage only provides stability until that job isn’t there. We need to provide opportunities for low-income residents to move into entrepreneurial spaces and build their own wealth instead of always contributing to the wealth of individuals outside of our community. There is an old adage that money only stays in the black community for six hours. That is not the case when people from the community own the businesses in their neighborhoods.
To do this, we need to look at the other issues that can be hindrances to our residents’ ability to achieve their goals. Resident ability to obtain wealth is directly tied to the myriad of factors that are woven together to form the poverty cycle. Education is key to being successful in the new economy; can we provide access to low-income residents? People need to be healthy to be successful; can we provide health care to people who have historically been unable to afford it?
The third thing to know is that we absolutely can do something about poverty in Milwaukee. For a long time, the narrative has been that our hands are tied because we are not getting enough shared revenue from the State or we are not getting the Federal grants we need to make something happen. We are at a moment in our history where the Governor of Wisconsin is preparing to roll out a plan for a $15 minimum wage. Elevating the wages of employees across the City will lead to some much-needed financial security that can contribute to the transformation of a person and family’s life. As a Council, we are prepared to support this effort by Governor Evers and look forward to seeing the other ways he will help us in our battles against poverty.
As residents of this City, we can be difference makers in ending critical poverty through our day to day actions. We can support our local businesses so that our dollars are being spent on people from the community who have a stake in where we live. We can help spread the word to people who need a new opportunity about the job fairs, training programs and open positions that exist. We can encourage new entrepreneurs both young and old to follow that passion and utilize the resources available to them to be successful. Ending critical poverty is something that requires all of us to come together. That work is happening now, and there will always be more seats at the table.