Population & Employment Trends in the Milwaukee Area

This post is part 1 of a 3-part series based on data originally presented at the first Milwaukee Area Project conference. Part 2  focuses on commuting and migration. Part 3, considers the future of the Milwaukee area workforce.

Over the past few decades, the Milwaukee area has evolved from a traditional central city and suburban dichotomy to a more evenly balanced multi-polar region. In 1970, about 46% of the entire five-county region lived within Milwaukee City limits and two-thirds lived within Milwaukee county. Today, the county’s share of the population has fallen to 54%. Milwaukee City is still more populous than any “suburban” county, but Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee have all grown significantly.

The most robust recent gains have occurred in Waukesha and Washington counties, both of which enjoyed double-digit growth rates from 2000 to 2016. Washington county added 17,800 new residents and Waukesha 37,700.

Over the same period the city of Milwaukee lost about 1,900 people—although this 0.3% decline represents a major improvement over the previous decade, which saw the city drop by more than 31,000 residents. Among incorporated municipalities, Waukesha city gained the most (7,500), with Oak Creek just behind (7,400). The largest losses came in Racine (4,300), followed by Milwaukee and West Allis (1,200).


Total employees over the years tells a similar story. (This refers to total jobs in the county, regardless of where the workers live). In 2016, the 5-county region hosted 895,000 jobs. Fifty-four percent of these positions were located in Milwaukee county, while 27% were in Waukesha.

During the 1990s Waukesha county added jobs at a robust average pace of 4.1% a year. Milwaukee county’s growth was much more anemic— an average of just of 0.2% annually. Likewise, the national economic downturn in the early 2000s affected the two counties in very different ways. From 2000 to 2007 Waukesha’s job growth merely slowed to an annual pace of  0.9%, while Milwaukee’s labor force contracted—declining an average of 0.6% each year.

These differences between the two counties have been less apparent since the Great Recession. Both counties fell hard. Milwaukee lost 6.3% of its workforce from 2007 to 2010, and Waukesha lost 7.5%. Since then, they have recovered in a similar fashion. During the 2010s Waukesha’s average annual growth rate has been 1.1% and Milwaukee’s has been 0.4%. In raw terms Milwaukee added 19,000 jobs from 2010 to 2016; Waukesha added 20,000.

The Milwaukee Area’s smaller counties have also recovered steadily from the Great Recession. Since 2010 Racine has averaged 0.6% annual job growth, Washington 1.4%, and Ozaukee 2.3%.

Workers in the entire five-county Milwaukee Area earned about $45.6 billion in 2016. Milwaukee county earners brought home 55% of this. Waukesha employee’s earned 28% of the total. Racine, Ozaukee, and Washington counties combine for the remaining 17%.

These broad measures of population, employment, and wages all tell a consistent story. For the past quarter century the Milwaukee Area has grown increasingly decentralized. Washington and Ozaukee have expanded their population, but the major growth has occurred in Waukesha county.

Still, several signs suggest that Milwaukee has turned the corner on some of its long-running economic struggles. The steep population loss of the 1990s has subsided, and Milwaukee City’s population now seems to be holding steady at just below 600,000. In comparison to the early and mid-2000s, the region’s recovery from the Great Recession has been fairly equal across Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. Some of the strongest evidence for Milwaukee’s ongoing revival is in the graph below. According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Milwaukee county added 4,377 establishments in net terms from 2010 to 2016. During the same time period, the remaining four counties combined for just 481 additional establishments.[1] Milwaukee county alone still holds over half the region’s people, employs over half the region’s workers, and generates over half the region’s wealth.

[1] The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines an establishment as follows. “An establishment is commonly understood as a single economic unit, such as a farm, a mine, a factory, or a store, that produces goods or services. Establishments are typically at one physical location and engaged in one, or predominantly one, type of economic activity for which a single industrial classification may be applied. A firm, or a company, is a business and may consist of one or more establishments, where each establishment may participate in different predominant economic activity.”

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Wisconsin Grows, but Most Municipalities Shrink

On May 25, 2017, the Census Bureau released its 2016 annual population estimates for subcounty geographic units.[1] This granular level of detail allows us to look more closely at where population change has occurred across the state.

As a whole, Wisconsin gained an estimated 91,419 people between July 2010 and July 2016—including 10,817 in the year ending July 2016. But these headline numbers obscure major variation across the state. Of the more than 1,850 cities, towns, and villages making up Wisconsin, 833 grew since 2010 and 986 of them shrank. Smaller places tended to get smaller, while bigger places got bigger. In 2010, 70 percent of the state lived in municipalities which would grow in the next six years, compared to just 30 percent in municipalities that would shrink. Much of this loss was concentrated in the northern region of the state, with the notable exception of several communities in Douglas County near Duluth, MN.

The map above shows the percent change in population for each Wisconsin municipality from 2010 to 2016.[2] The Green Bay/Appleton and greater Madison regions saw some of the highest growth, with additional sustained growth occurring in the Western part of the state including La Crosse, Eau Claire, and the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs. Nearly all portions of Marathon County surrounding Wausau have also experienced growth since 2010, although the City of Wausau itself declined marginally. This stands in stark contrast to nearby Rusk County, which lost 4 percent of its total population over the same time period. The only county to fare worse was neighboring Price County where the population declined by 4.5 percent. Dane County fared best with 9 percent growth, followed by tiny Menomonee (7 percent) and Green Bay area Brown County (5 percent).

Applying the same scale to just the past year’s change reveals similar, though necessarily less severe, trends. From 2015 to 2016 the City of Milwaukee lost an estimated 4,300 people, or about 0.7 percent of its population. Combined with a minor decline the year before, this essentially wiped out the city’s slight growth from 2010 to 2014.

Despite stagnant population size in places like Milwaukee and Wausau, Wisconsin’s growth is driven by its most populous communities. Municipalities with populations of at least 10,000 grew an average of 1.5 percent from 2010 to 2016. Municipalities with less than 1,000 residents shrank an average of 0.5 percent.


[1] Estimates are for July 1 of each year.

[2] I use the Census Bureau’s July population estimate base for 2010, not the decennial census. The technical unit of measurement in the map is Minor Civil Division (MCD), which corresponds with Wisconsin’s municipalities except in situations where municipalities cross county lines. In those rare cases, each county’s portion of the municipality is measured and mapped uniquely. Statistics in the report, however, reflect the total figures for each municipality.


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Marquette Law School Poll Reveals Public Perceptions Of Water-Related Issues

Public perceptions of environmental risk have long been controversial when used as a tool to help set public policy.  Many scholars have argued that there is a fundamental “mismatch”[1] between “notoriously inaccurate”[2] public perceptions of the magnitude and sources of environmental risks, as compared with expert analyses of the same.  Even if that is true, public perceptionBanner logo - Earth in a drops would be worth measuring for other reasons: for example, studies have confirmed that “federal environmental laws reflect public perceptions of risks more than they do scientific understanding.”[3]  And just this year, a gathering of environmental law scholars discussing the future of environmental law stressed the increasing ethical obligation to consider (often marginalized) community voices, turning environmental law into “a tool for collaboration and connection . . . rather than conflict.”  In short, perhaps “public perceptions of environmental risk deserve more credit than comparative risk analysts admit.”[4]

Despite a general sense of “increasing public concerns about issues of water quality and the health of riparian environments,”[5] surprisingly few efforts have been made to quantify the level of public disquiet over these problems.  To help fill that gap in Wisconsin, two surveys were conducted in August 2016 by the Marquette Law School Poll, and find significant levels of concern over water quality and policy generally.  However, most Wisconsin voters reported lower levels of worry regarding their personal sources of drinking water.

Interest in Water Quality

Recent reporting has highlighted drinking water concerns across the state—including lead levels,[6] agriculture-related bacterial contamination,[7] and a failed legislative effort to ease municipal water system privatization.[8] Our survey results indicate that not only journalists are taking an interest in these topics. Seventy-eight percent of respondents reported hearing at least some about the lead crisis in the Flint, Michigan water supply. When asked about the safety of the water supply in Wisconsin’s own low income communities, 68% were very or somewhat concerned, 17% not too concerned, and just 13% not at all concerned. However, when asked about the safety of the water supply in their own community, respondents were more confident. A combined 56% were either not too concerned or not at all concerned, with another 44% being very or somewhat concerned.

Continue ReadingMarquette Law School Poll Reveals Public Perceptions Of Water-Related Issues