MILWAUKEE — As Washington and Madison fiddle, this city’s middle class is in slow free fall.
First, the numbers. From 1970 to 2007, the percentage of families in the Milwaukee metropolitan area that were middle class declined from 37 to 24 percent, according to a new analysis by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
(Click on the photo above for a slideshow) During the same period, the proportion of affluent families grew from 22 to 27 percent–while the percentage of poor households swelled from 23 to 31 percent. In short, Milwaukee’s middle class families went from a plurality to its smallest minority.
The biggest culprit is the disappearance of well-paying manufacturing jobs. Despite a promising recent uptick in high-end manufacturing, Milwaukee has suffered a 40 percent decline in manufacturing jobs since 1970, when Schlitz, Pabst and American Motors reigned. Instead of shrinking, the city’s urban poverty is creeping outward toward suburbs.
Late Wednesday afternoon, that was evident in the Jefferson Elementary school of West Allis, a once solidly middle class suburb bordering Milwaukee. In a crowded school gymnasium, principal Shelly Strasser said that fifty percent of students now qualify for free or reduced price school lunch programs. In other local schools, the number is ninety percent.