Decoding Madison’s disparities
by Kate Jungers
Madison has long experienced alarming levels of racial disparity despite its reputation as an idyllic college town. In 2013, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families published the Race to Equity report, which brought Madison’s stark racial divides to the forefront. The report challenged former depictions of Madison and increased public awareness overnight. But experts say narrowing the divide will take much longer. Doing so will require examining the factors and economic policies that contributed to the inequality over time.
Madison has a rich history of left-leaning politics, particularly on UW-Madison’s campus. Yet these liberal values do not align with the high rate of inequalities many Madison residents experience. UW-Madison Professor, William Jones, who specializes in civil rights, African Americans and labor and working class, believes that Madison’s progressive and innovative climate could be one of the most influential factors that spur economic disparities throughout the city.
From 2011 to 2013, the unemployment rate in Madison for blacks stood at an alarming 17 percent, while only 5.1 perecent for their white counterparts, according to an article from the Capital Times. During that same time period 42.2 percent of blacks were living in poverty in Madison, while only 16.8 percent of whites were living in poverty. Over the past ten years, this trend has only increased, with blacks experiencing much higher levels of unemployment and poverty than whites.
Professor Jones particularly points to the specific economy that is found in Madison to explain why we see such high levels of disparity in such a seemingly progressive city.
“Madison has a particular economic makeup,” he said. “It’s a city that the economy is highly skewed towards high tech, medicine and education. These are industries where people’s employment aspects are highly dependent on their education and usually must have a very high of education at that.”
Due to the innovative economic and technological climate of Madison, there are very limited employment prospects for residents of Madison, unless you have a high level of education, he pointed out. Few jobs are available in Madison for those without a college or even high school education, and those often pay very low and are not necessarily long-term. Jones added that Madison has a significant decline in manufacturing jobs, which is a nationwide trend, that plays an especially large role in Madison.
“Madison is very good for someone with resources and a high level of education, but it’s really hard to survive if you don’t. The fast growing, high tech, innovative economy drives up the cost of living, and it skews the job market, which often tends to exacerbate racial differences,” he said. “These things then often translate into education disparities and crime when people fall on hard times.”
Jones also believes certain political movements might have exacerbated racial disparities in Madison, and throughout the state of Wisconsin. He specifically points to unions, which have recently experienced lower levels of support in Wisconsin and across the nation.
“Unions are institutions that create some rules that provide a base of support and ensure that if people work hard they will actually earn a decent living,” said Jones. “Unions are supported by public policies and in an economy where we don’t have a lot of those types of institutions it’s not surprising to see people who don’t have a lot of supports fall behind.”
In addition to policies that may contribute to increased disparities throughout the city and state, Jones notes that unlike many states that have a great amount of black political power, minority populations are disproportionately underrepresented in Wisconsin’s state legislature. With a large population that is underrepresented, issues related to these marginalized communities are overlooked, therefore feeding into the cycle.