K-12 Tax & Spending Climate: Milwaukee: Still riding along in Madison’s wake

Tom Hefty:

The Twin Cities of Wisconsin are Madison, metro population 633,000, and Milwaukee, metro population 1.57 million. Both cities are dominated by Democratic politics, yet the economies of the two cities have taken decidedly different paths.

Madison is prospering; Milwaukee is not.

Madison has a median family income of $77,700; Milwaukee’s is $40,800. Fifty-three percent of Madison’s population has a bachelor’s degree or higher; it’s 22% in Milwaukee.

In the past 30 years, metro Madison grew 45%; metro Milwaukee grew just 11%.

What caused the difference in outcomes for two cities separated by only 75 miles? The answer lies in Wisconsin politics, particularly the politics of the Democratic Party. The post-World War II Democratic Party revival in Wisconsin was led by Democrats in Madison, not Milwaukee.

Madison was the seat of government; Milwaukee was the commercial capital of Wisconsin. Government won.

Three factors have driven overall growth: the impact of higher education and new technology; entrepreneurship and new businesses; and the expansion of government services since the Great Society and the Obama administration’s stimulus spending. For each factor, Madison won and Milwaukee lost.

More than 40 years ago, “The History of Wisconsin” noted that Milwaukee Democrats provided the votes to elect Madison Democrats to statewide office. Since World War II, five Democrats have been elected governor. None was from Milwaukee. (Lt. Gov. Martin Schreiber, a Milwaukee Democrat, became governor in 1977 after Patrick Lucey resigned.)

The numbers tell the story: 2014 was a watershed year for Wisconsin’s Twin Cities. For the first time in history, the average wages in Madison’s Dane County exceeded the average wages in Milwaukee County.

Let’s look at the three factors that drove the two cities apart.