Metro Milwaukee’s Problems Mirror the National Challenge

Alan Berube
Alan Berube Interim Vice President and Director - Brookings Metro

May 8, 2010

It’s been nearly 200 years since explorer Solomon Juneau settled on the edge of Lake Michigan and began the transformation of a wooded wilderness into the 39th-largest metropolitan area in the nation.

Since then, metropolitan Milwaukee, like the rest of the country, has gone through several transformations, and it is likely Juneau would find what he would see today to be overwhelming, incomprehensible.

Now, new demographic data show America is undergoing another transformation, an extraordinary transformation, one for which we may not be prepared. Our country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, the collections of cities and suburbs that house two-thirds of our population, are on the front lines of this transformation.

What is changing in America is changing first and fastest in our metros. It will take vision, leadership and hard work to shape what areas like the four-county metro Milwaukee and our country as a whole will look like in the future.

Our new report, “The State of Metropolitan America,” describes a nation that has grown larger, more diverse and more educated in the first decade of this century. Those three characteristics offer the potential of a tremendous advantage among industrialized nations as the global economy becomes more integrated and more competitive.

Where is metro Milwaukee’s place in this transformation? Metro Milwaukee – which we define as Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington counties – grew in the 2000s, but at a very modest 3% rate. While the city of Milwaukee is quite diverse, the metropolitan area’s population as a whole is less racially and ethnically diverse than the national average. Non-whites accounted for all of the region’s growth in the 2000s. And its adults are relatively well-educated, with 31% holding a four-year college degree, up from 27% in 2000.

That higher rate of educational attainment, in our view, distinguishes metro Milwaukee from the prototypical Rust Belt metro areas to which it is often compared. We instead refer to the region as a “Skilled Anchor,” part of a group of 19 American metro areas that includes Akron, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Rochester.

In general, these Skilled Anchors are manufacturing and shipping centers that have transitioned, not without difficulty, to service-based economies, often driven by medical and higher educational institutions and high value-added manufacturing. Metro Milwaukee is no stranger to innovation both social, as the laboratory for what became welfare reform, and economic, as the hub for an emerging water technologies industry.

As with other Skilled Anchors, the Milwaukee region’s demographic transformation brings new challenges. While the city of Milwaukee managed a modest population gain this decade, the region continued to sprawl outward, with the fastest growth rate posted in exurban Washington County. The region is aging rapidly, especially its suburbs, where baby boomers and seniors account for fully 44% of the population (vs. 38% nationally).

Despite rising educational attainment, households in Milwaukee’s city and suburbs suffered significant income losses in the 2000s, as the regional economy was not immune to the decade-long recession that plagued much of the Midwest. And the population groups that are growing in the region – largely blacks and Hispanics – earn college degrees at less than half the rate of their white counterparts.

For these reasons, who metro Milwaukee is – an aging, diversifying and educated populace – says more about its potential and, thus, what its priorities should be than where it is. At the national and state level, meeting the challenges of a carbon-constrained environment will require housing and transportation policies to help regions like Milwaukee continue to strengthen its core city and older suburban areas.

Meeting the workforce challenges of metro Milwaukee’s future will require education policies that prepare all children for post-secondary education and help them succeed in earning credentials, so they can build on the economic momentum created by the retiring baby boomers.

Metropolitan leaders in Milwaukee must respond to these new demographic shifts as well. The one thing Solomon Juneau might recognize about the Milwaukee area is its 18th-century collection of fragmented municipal governments. But the region’s rapidly diversifying and aging suburbs will not be able to cope with their challenges individually.

Planning, service delivery and economic and workforce development must be shared across borders if the Milwaukee metro hopes to maintain a high and rising quality of life for all its residents.

Milwaukee and America are changing in front of our eyes. Their new demographic reality highlights the public policy decisions needed to ensure the health, prosperity and security of our nation in the 2010s and beyond.