An 8 day holiday in Wisconsin

On my return from San Francisco I stopped off for 8 days in Wisconsin, which is generally viewed as one of America’s least interesting states.  So you may want to skip these random observations.

1.  In Racine I saw one of Frank Lloyd Wrights best houses; Wingspread.  Highly recommended. Unfortunately the famous Johnson Wax Building was not open for tours.

2.  Then on to Kohler, where I gave a talk at the Economic Club of Sheboygan.  They put me up at the midwest’s only 5 star resort, and I greatly enjoyed my visit.  Too bad it wasn’t taped, as I think it was my best presentation.  Kohler is a company town that specializes in high-end bathroom fixtures.  If you think Marcel Duchamp had the last word on toilet art, you really need to check out the Kohler Design Center.

3.  Wisconsin received a lot immigrants after it became a state in 1848, a year of political turmoil in Germany.  Thus the economic structure of Wisconsin has a slightly Germanic feel.  Lots of middle-sized family-owned manufacturers, making products such as machinery and beer.  It has also a strong social-democratic tradition.  Like Germany, lots of mid-sized cities and no giant cities.  The highways seemed smoother than in Boston.  The people are quite friendly.  OK, that one doesn’t exactly match Germany.

4.  Then on to 6 days in Madison, which as far back as 1948 was named America’s best city by Life magazine.  And it seemed better than ever.  As I travelled around I visualized a sort of “ghost city” overlaying what I was seeing.  The city I remember from 1970, when I was 15 year old, and the city I was seeing today, which seemed more attractive and more prosperous.  It also seemed unusually white for a Great Lakes area city with 240,000 residents.  I certainly didn’t notice many minorities.

5.  These impressions are pretty much confirmed by wikipedia.  The population is only 7.3% black, and similar percentages for hispanics and Asians.  It has a very low crime rate, and is the second most educated city in America.  Lots of leafy neighborhoods, parks, and lakes.  It must be one of the largest cities in America that doesn’t have any real slums.

6.  And yet, when you talk to long-time residents a different picture emerges.  The city is much more diverse than it used to be.  When I was in junior high school I don’t recall any black students (although there must have been a few.)  I’m told that the school is now around 50% minority.  Naturally I’m skeptical, I didn’t see many minorities in the neighborhoods around Cherokee Junior High.  And I know all about cognitive illusions (if you grow up in an all white area, and move to a mixed neighborhood, the percentage of minorities will appear much higher than it actually is.)

7.  But further research confirmed much of what I was told.  My old junior high is less than 40% white.  This report suggests there were two significant migrations of African-Americans:

Prior to 1970, African-Americans comprised barely 1% of Dane County’s population (.7% in 1960 and 1.1% in 1970). Beginning in the early-1970’s, educational and employment opportunities began to open, and the pace of African-American settlement in Madison increased. Attendance at UWMadison and subsequent settlement has long operated to bring new, well-educated residents to Dane County. African Americans began to join this population flow in the early 1970’s. Simultaneously, the county’s largest employer, state government, sought to diversify its workforce and began to hire well-educated African-Americans for professional jobs.

Beginning in the mid-1980’s and continuing into the 1990’s, a new source of inmigration brought poor African-American families from northern Illinois and Indiana. These families were often single femaleheaded with minor children. In many cases, young parents were “pushed” out of dangerous, dead-end urban neighborhoods and fled to Madison in search of better housing, employment, and educational opportunity for their young children.

This second migration led to some racial disparities that are shocking, even by US standards:

African Americans’ relative youthfulness compared to the general Dane County population is striking. African-Americans comprise 8% of Dane County’s children, but only 4% of young adults, 3% of middle-aged adults and barely 1% of its elders.

And this:

In 2000, black children in Dane County were 12 times more likely to be poor than white children (36% vs. 3%).

They go on to report a 1% poverty rate for white children in married households.  In a county with 400,000 whites!  That’s the Madison I grew up in, a world where it seemed everyone was middle class.

When I was young there were lots of industrial cities going through “demographic transitions.”  The stereotypical image is of an “Archie Bunker-type” saying “there goes the neighborhood,” when African-Americans moved from the south into northern working-class neighborhoods.  But unless I’m mistaken that seems much less noticable today, with minorities dispersed throughout the metro area (although at the micro level there are some concentrations.)  The one exception is the schools.

The data on schools made me realize that Madison is simply a whiter version of Boston.  Boston is nearly 50% white, and seems quite prosperous to casual visitors, but its schools are only 13% white.  Madison is over 75% white, non-hispanic.  Indeed 83% of residents are white or Asian, so only 17% are in groups that traditionally perform less well in school.  But only 45% of Madison public schoolchildren are white.  There has clearly been some “white flight” to the suburbs.

Even so, I don’t expect Madison to suffer from the full range of urban problems that afflicted the older manufacturing cities that saw rapid demographic change in the 1950s through the 1980s.  The new “gentrification” urban model seems to be able to accommodate racial diversity in housing, at least to some extent.  It is in the schools where one really notices the effects of race and ethnicity.  It will be interesting to see whether Madison is able to maintain a high level of racial integration in its public schools.  My hunch is that they might succeed, but probably by moving toward the sort of slightly elitest charter/magnet school approach that is anathama to the highly progressive electorate of Dane County.



10 Responses to “An 8 day holiday in Wisconsin”

  1. Gravatar of Petar Petar
    2. June 2013 at 08:01

    I found Germans to be very friendly (at least friendlier than my people), but, you know, there are a lot of them, you never know who you will meet 😀

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. June 2013 at 10:38

    Petar, Yes, I was just joking. Although I’ve found they can get a bit impatient when foreigners don’t know how things are done in Germany.

  3. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    2. June 2013 at 14:08

    Did you read the classic Iowahawk post on race & education in Wisconsin vs Texas? Not normally relevant for The Money Illusion, but it involves Krugman.

  4. Gravatar of Mike C Mike C
    2. June 2013 at 17:12

    Glad you had a good time in Madison. I can only assume you stopped at the terrace for a pitcher?

  5. Gravatar of a reader a reader
    2. June 2013 at 18:27

    “They go on to report a 1% poverty rate for white children in married households. ”

    For the nation as a whole, the poverty rate for white married families is 3%. See (scroll down for the chart)

    I don’t know the number for white married families with children, but I suspect it is similar (maybe a little lower).

    So Madison is still exceptional, but not quite as exceptional as one might imagine. Poverty for married white families is essentially nonexistent throughout the country.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. June 2013 at 05:15

    TGGP, Yes, a good post.

    Mike, Alas no.

    A reader, I’d guess the poverty rate is higher for white families with children than w/o–but nonetheless fairly low, as you say.

  7. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    3. June 2013 at 11:26

    Today Madison’s politics are left of Lenin, but the rest of the state tends to ensure they can’t do much harm to the local economy. That giant undisclosed slush fund coming to light didn’t help them any either.,_Wisconsin

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. June 2013 at 17:14

    I didn’t hear about the slush fund.

  9. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    4. June 2013 at 07:18

    It’s more of a local story, apparently they have $200M-$1B (depending on how you look at it) sitting around unspent despite years of crying poor. I’m in northern Illinois so I get the Wisconsin radio station.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. June 2013 at 11:51

    Thanks Talldave.

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