Call it a tale of two cities.
For whites, Madison continues to offer a high standard of living. Think Farmers' Market, Concerts on the Square and good-paying jobs.
For minorities, however, it’s a vastly different story. High unemployment, low wages, children in poverty.
It’s not a pleasant story to tell but one that Mayor Paul Soglin wants more people to hear — especially the local business community.
Soglin found his audience Wednesday at the downtown Madison Rotary, first laying out statistics on the scope of the issue, then urging business owners to increase hiring and charitable giving.
Consider these numbers compiled by the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families using 2011 data for Dane County:
- Black unemployment was 25.2 percent vs. 4.8 percent for whites.
- The poverty rate for African-American families in Dane County rose from 33 percent in 2006 to 54 percent in 2011. For whites, the poverty rate is 8 percent.
Those disparities are worse than the state and nation as a whole, Soglin said.
But it’s not just a Madison problem,” he said, noting that 80 percent of children in the town of Madison are living in poverty. “There are challenges in Fitchburg and Sun Prairie, too.”
Soglin went on to talk about how Madison has recovered from the recession: 3,000 new housing units since 2012; a doubling of commercial construction over the past 15 months compared to the previous two years.
“The problem is that one-quarter of our population is not participating in the recovery, is not participating in the economy,” he said.
Those figures didn’t come as a surprise to Wes Sparkman, one of the few non-white members of downtown Rotary.
“As an African-American I am very aware of what’s going on,” said Sparkman. “But what this tells me is that we all need to work a little harder to make this community work for everyone.”
It’s not going to come from government, Soglin said, noting the cuts in funding for social programs and the anti-taxing sentiment that is gripping most of the nation these days.
“Grover Norquist has won for the time-being,” he said. “The city and county simply don’t have the resources.”
Soglin went on to recount how Henry Ford in the 1920s realized that paying workers a living wage was crucial to the health of his own business and the broader economy. The mayor, who was making his 23rd appearance at downtown Rotary Wednesday, also lashed out against the Wal-Mart model of retailing based on poverty wages and part-time employees.
But Soglin was also realistic about the economic realities, saying if Madison tried to do something about low wages on its own, it would simply push businesses to leave the city altogether.
Instead, Soglin challenged the business leaders in the audience to increase their employment by even one or two percent. He also urged Rotarians to help the YWCA, which is facing an end to its employee transportation program due to cutbacks at the federal and state level.
“We cannot do this without the private sector stepping up” he said.
There was also encouraging news.
Campus area Ald. Scott Resnick, who was in the audience Wednesday, referred to a program with Sherman Middle School partnering with business incubator Sector67 to teach minority students about computer programming.
“This isn’t going to solve all our problems but anything we can do to show socially disadvantaged kids about the technology sector can only help,” says Resnick, vice president of Hardin Design & Development and co-founder of Capital Entrepreneurs, a support group for leaders of young companies.
Madison businessman and landlord Curt Brink, who is involved with trying to develop more incubator space for new companies, thinks the city is up for the challenge.
“I see a lot of good things happening with our economy,” he says. “We can get there.”
Rotary member Stu Levitan was simply glad to hear Soglin put all the issues out front for public consumption.
"Nobody can lay out the big picture like Paul can," he said.