The uneven recovery of Milwaukee’s economy since the COVID-19 pandemic began

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Over the past 27 months, the U.S. economy underwent incredible shifts. The shutdown beginning in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was the swiftest and most deliberate slowdown of economic activity on record. In response, the federal government issued an unprecedented level of fiscal stimulus. Thus far, about $6 trillion has been disbursed through legislative or administrative action. This comes on top of nearly $5 trillion of federal reserve stimulus.

Despite initial concerns of a lengthy recession, the economic recovery began swiftly. Officially, the 2020 recession is the shortest in American history. That said, the recovery has been uneven. In much of the country, unemployment rates remain higher now than in 2019.

In an effort to sort through Milwaukee’s experience of both the shutdown and the recovery, Mike Gousha and I have a new article out today in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as part of our Milwaukee Area Project and the Lubar Center’s long running collaboration with the newspaper. It is accompanied by another article by business reporter Corri Hess.

As you might imagine, a great deal more research went into this project than appears in the final article. I’ve written a longer report, “Milwaukee’s economy during the pandemic: Fewer jobs, more businesses,” which can be downloaded here. (Open the HTML document with the web browser of your choice). The report contains detailed tables and analysis using federal, state, and local datasets to explore changes to Milwaukee’s businesses and employees over the past several years.

The picture that emerges defies a simple summary. Some parts of the economy are doing well. Many sectors have seen a net increase in new businesses compared to before the pandemic. But most industries (with a few notable exceptions) still employ fewer people than in 2019. Despite the national narrative of a tight labor market, the Bureau of Labor Statistics still estimates the city of Milwaukee’s unemployment rate to be higher than at this time three years ago. At the same time, the size of the fiscal stimulus delivered in cash to Milwaukeeans is remarkable–outstripping the loss in total wages paid by Milwaukee employers during 2020 several times over.

For the most part, stimulus programs are finished, and concerns over inflation have taken center stage. Still, the best statistics available show more unemployed people in Milwaukee currently than in 2019. As federal policymakers shift their focus from stimulus to inflation-fighting, the effect on Milwaukee’s economy is hard to predict. In some important ways, the recovery is still incomplete.

Neighborhoods where Milwaukee isn’t segregated

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The following statistics were calculated by aggregating 2020 census blocks into Milwaukee neighborhoods. Because of data quality concerns stemming from the Census Bureau’s new differential privacy techniques, I do not present data for neighborhoods with fewer than 400 residents.

The 2020 Census reconfirmed Milwaukee’s status as one of the most segregated cities and metropolitan areas in the United States.

According to Brown University’s Diversity and Disparities Project, metro-wide Black-white segregation declined slightly, but the Milwaukee metro still ranks 2nd-most segregated, just as in 2010. Within city limits, the absolute degree of Black-white segregation measured by Brown University remained unchanged, and segregation between other groups declined only modestly.

These dismal statistics point to how far Milwaukee remains from being a fair place to live for most of its residents. Still, there are neighborhoods in Milwaukee that saw significant positive change over the last decade. Their populations grew more representative of the city as a whole.

One way to measure this is a “diversity index,” which shows the likelihood that two people randomly chosen from the same neighborhood would identify with different races. Continue reading “Neighborhoods where Milwaukee isn’t segregated”

Many of Wisconsin’s rural towns are more walkable than suburbs

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downtown platteville
Downtown Platteville, source: Platteville.org

Walk Score is a company which generates eponymous scores for towns and addresses based on how many staples of everyday life you can walk to. A score of 0 means nothing is in walking distance. An entirely walkable community scores 100. New York City scores 88, Los Angeles 69, Houston 47, Scottsdale 32.

I grew up in Bardolph, Illinois with a walk score of 7. We lived within walking distance of three places where I could legally spend money–the post office and two pop machines. Bardolph wasn’t always this way. My great-aunts could recall catching the train to the county seat. During my mom’s childhood, the village still had a grocery store, pool hall, schools, and two churches. The high school consolidated in 1973, and the grade school merged with Adair in 1979. The Presbyterian church closed in the early 1990s, while the Methodist church lingered just a few years longer. Last time I visited, the pop machines were gone, and the post office was only staffed 2 hours a day.

Bardolph is a little closer to oblivion than some of its neighbors. But all of McDonough County’s small towns–Adair (walk score: 7), Good Hope (10), Industry (8), Prairie City (17)–are well along that same trajectory.

These low walk scores aren’t a consequence of car-centric design. You could walk to the furthest corners of each in 15 minutes, possibly even on a sidewalk. There is just almost nowhere left to walk to.

This being my experience of rural life, I was surprised to encounter many healthy small towns in Wisconsin, some of which are even thriving. Continue reading “Many of Wisconsin’s rural towns are more walkable than suburbs”

County-level CDC and DHS vaccination statistics for Wisconsin vary in important ways

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