As reported earlier this week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Center for Economic Development's latest report on race and employment paints a devastating picture of the depth of joblessness in Milwaukee's central city. According to the study, only 44.7% of African-American males in the City of Milwaukee between the ages of 16 and 64 were employed in 2010. That's the lowest rate ever recorded by CED, and a substantial drop from the already anemic 52.9% rate recorded just before the recession.
A brief review of the comments posted by readers of the newspaper's coverage shows predictable responses from the left and right. It's either Walker's or Obama's fault, or the problem is caused by the personal failings of the unemployed individuals or the greed of corporate robber barons who have moved jobs overseas.
From the perspective of the Public Policy Forum, the issue is not one of politics, but of commitment. The German heritage of this town should dictate that when a problem grows to such an alarming magnitude and festers for two decades without meaningful improvement, then it's time to roll up our sleeves, develop a plan, and pursue it with discipline and gusto.
And therein may lie the problem. As we put it in "Assembling the Parts," our recent report on Milwaukee's economic development landscape: "Milwaukee’s elected, business, academic and civic leaders have taken several important and impressive steps in recent years to add both strength and focus to the city’s economic development efforts, but those efforts still could benefit from enhanced precision, cohesion and accountability."
In other words, it's not enough to have city government and private economic development organizations working on their own worthwhile projects and in their own important niches. We need a true economic development plan that establishes concrete goals (the foremost of which would have to be job creation for our unemployed), formulates specific strategies designed to achieve those goals, and develops performance objectives and accountabilities to accompany those strategies. Ideally, the plan would be updated annually, with all the parties focused with laser-like precision on the overall goals, and with strategies being adjusted as performance and new developments dictate.
Obviously, a problem as deeply-rooted and complex as central city unemployment will not be solved simply by developing a plan. But isn't it time for city and economic development leaders to spell out precisely how they aim to tackle this problem and how they plan to assess their progress?