Poor Transit Access and Wisconsin’s Staggering Black Incarceration Rate

The state of Wisconsin imprisons a higher proportion of black men than any other state. Almost 13 percent of the state’s African American men are behind bars — nearly twice the national average. In Milwaukee County, according to a recent report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison [PDF], more than half of black men in their thirties have served time in state prison.

Recent transit funding cuts in Wisconsin could put more jobs out of reach for black men in Milwaukee. Image: ##http://www.communityjournal.net/milwaukee-county-receives-transit-grants/##Milwaukee Community Journal##

UM-Madison’s John Pawasarat and Lois Quinn recently explored this problem as an aspect of the major workforce challenges facing the state. One of their key findings was that for black working-age men in the Milwaukee area, transportation barriers are a major obstacle to employment, restricting their prospects.

Among African Americans living in Milwaukee, 47 percent do not have a driver’s license, and the unemployment rate is 24 percent.

“Two-thirds of the county’s incarcerated African American men came from six zip codes in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee,” Pawasarat and Quinn write. “Most ex-offenders return from prison into inner city neighborhoods that have extremely large gaps (i.e., 25 to 1 in May 2009) between the number of active job seekers compared to available full-time work.”

Black men would have more employment options if jobs were accessible by transit. But that tends not to be the case, Quinn told BBC reporters.

“When we do job surveys, we find that three-fourths of the jobs that are available are outside the bus lines,” she said.

Buses and rail have fared poorly under Scott Walker, who saw Milwaukee transit service deteriorate on his watch as county executive and managed to kill passenger rail service to Madison before even taking office as governor in 2010. Since then, Walker has presided over a 10 percent cut to the state’s transit budget. Milwaukee has been able to avoid dramatic bus service cuts so far, thanks to one-off budget maneuvers, but a $7 million deficit looms in 2014 [PDF]. One estimate from Joel Rast at UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development warned that Milwaukee bus cuts prompted by Walker’s decision to slash transit funding would eliminate access to more than 13,000 jobs for city residents.

For many, driving to work is not a viable option. Pawasarat and Quinn’s research shows that only about 10 percent of black men with incarceration records in the state had a current, valid drivers license with no recent suspensions or revocations.

“If there was a job here where I could get on the bus to support my family, I would take it,” Brian Osei, a participant in a jobs program for ex-offenders, told the BBC. “There’s nothing here. I have to take this risk [driving under suspension] to drive.”

  • Our organization regularly provided transit information to employers in our suburban community who regularly struggle to staff service, hospitality and retail businesses here. This allows them to promote their jobs as ones which can be reached in transit, building a stronger system over time with increased ridership and more support from the busienss community. It’s slow outreach, one business at a time. The critical thing is when you go. Hotels, for instance, are easiest to reach when business is slow and they’re preparing to hire for their busy season here, in late winter. Restaurants need to be visited early in the day and week. http://www.busec.org

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Milwaukee Transit Advocates Win $13.5 Million Settlement From State DOT

|
In a Wisconsin lawsuit that’s been closely watched by transportation reformers around the country, local advocates have extracted some resources for transit from a notoriously highway-obsessed state DOT. Settling in federal court with Milwaukee civil rights groups, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation agreed to provide $13.5 million in transit funding as part of the enormous […]

Milwaukee Transit to Get a Desperately Needed Boost

|
If there’s one region in the country that desperately needs better transit, it’s Milwaukee. And there are a ton of places that badly need better transit. The notoriously segregated Milwaukee region lacks strong transit connections between the city and growing suburban job centers. About 47 percent of the region’s African American population, mostly concentrated in […]

Wisconsin’s Anti-Urban Policies Fed Milwaukee’s Notorious Racial Segregation

|
After Milwaukee police shot and killed 23-year-old Sylville Smith, setting off a violent confrontation between protesters and police in the predominantly black neighborhood of Sherman Park last weekend, news outlets looked at how the region’s history of discrimination set the stage for an uprising. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated and unequal cities in the country, saddling its black […]

WisDOT Faces Civil Rights Suit Over $1.7 Billion “Zoo Interchange”

|
In the politically polarized Milwaukee region, there are two widely divergent visions of what transportation should do. There’s the Waukesha vision, which might be summarized as all highways, no transit. This suburban Republican stronghold — one of the most conservative counties in the country — has for years been systematically severing the already limited transit connections […]