Health Commissioner: Milwaukee Must Deal with Race and Poverty Issues

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If Milwaukee is to become a healthy city in both broad terms and in terms of specific issues, it must deal with issues in an honest, constructive way with poverty and race, City of Milwaukee Health Commission Bevan Baker said Thursday during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at Eckstein Hall.

“Milwaukee will not be the greatest, most relevant, healthiest city in America until we deal with our dirty linen,” Baker, health commissioner since 2004, told an audience of about 150.

“To do that,” he continued, “we have got to do what other cities have done, and that is to address race, to address poverty, to look at these issues, and say, it is tough, it is unimaginable, it makes me sick, it is ugly, but to be great we have got to do the unimaginable thing, and that is to once and for all say, and in true fashion, to take our spiritual and moral compass and say, Milwaukee will not be the healthiest, greatest, most relevant city in America until we deal with our dirty linen. That’s what New York has done and that is what Miami is trying to do and that’s what other cities in this nation I have lived in have done.”

Milwaukee, Baker said, “can be and it will be great, but it will not be the greatest city it can be until we are honest about diversity, inclusion, and our spiritual and moral compass. I believe there is a social covenant that has been broken. . . . We’ve got to bring that covenant back, and that means we’ve got to have a moment where we say, you know what, black, brown white, whatever it may be, Milwaukee is better than this.”

Baker said it may take a generation for the infant mortality rate in Milwaukee to fall to more acceptable levels. Current rates put Milwaukee in league with some Third World countries, he said. While some infant deaths are not preventable, many are.

He called preventable deaths of infants in the city “a slow motion Sandy Hook,” referring to the grade school killings in December in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children were killed in the attack by a heavily armed man on a school – about the number of children who die each year in unsafe sleeping situations in Milwaukee.

Baker strongly advocated more preventative efforts in dealing with unsafe sleeping and said his department was supporting public education efforts, including controversial ads last year that compared unsafe sleeping to put a baby to bed with a butcher knife, and projects such as offering cribs to families that could not afford them.

But Baker said he generally did not favor criminal prosecution of parents involved in unsafe sleeping deaths of infants. He said that those parents have to live with the pain and sorrow of the death of their children. He questioned what putting them in prison would prove. Following the death last week of an infant who suffocated after the mother drank alcohol, took drugs, and fell asleep on the baby, Alderman Robert Donovan called for prosecuting the mother. The investigation of the case is continuing.

Baker said a major problem in Milwaukee was that there was not strong enough support in the community as a whole for addressing issues related to the living circumstances of children.

He praised the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a continuing series of stories it has done titled “Empty Cradles” and focusing on infant mortality. But, he said, the issue “is on the front pages of our newspaper but on the back pages of our hearts.” He said every person, including him, has to ask what he or she is doing, and whether it is enough, when it comes to helping children in Milwaukee.

“I do believe if you were to pull back the layers . . . you would understand that if you go upstream and deal with social policy, housing policy, income policy, racism, all of these issues, then you begin to get to some of the underlying issues that make for the perfect cocktail that allow Milwaukee to fare worse than some other entities,” Baker said. “Because some communities have dealt with income inequity, housing inequity, employment issues, they’ve dealt with race in ways that Wisconsin and Milwaukee haven’t. Let’s be candid about that.”

Video of Baker’s comments may be viewed by clicking here.

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