Greenwich Apartments photos at sunset

There are solutions to city’s poverty

They include more low-income housing, fewer fines and less incarceration.

More than half a century ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress during his first State of the Union address and declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” drawing attention to the uncomfortable truth that millions of Americans were living without hope for a better future. President Johnson hoped to change how poverty was addressed in America by devoting new resources to programs designed to move the country toward ending poverty altogether. We have made progress toward this goal in the years since, but still have a long way to go.

The reasons for this are complex, but are due in part to the widespread weaponization of the justice system against those who are least able to defend themselves. This has resulted in a mass incarceration crisis, while also enmeshing millions of low-income Americans in debt they can never escape. Minor offenses result in exorbitant fines and fees, drivers’ licenses are suspended by the millions for the inability to pay and those who must drive to work and provide for their families often end up in jail as a result. Cash bail requirements keep them there, and in many municipalities, charge them room and board for the privilege of being incarcerated. In what is perhaps the most egregious example of the criminalization of poverty, homelessness throughout the country is not addressed by providing shelter but rather punished through anti-vagrancy laws.

Like many cities, Milwaukee is grappling with these issues. Almost one in three residents live in poverty – more than twice the state and national averages. In communities of color, where much of this poverty is concentrated, the rate is even higher. There are perhaps no neighborhoods in the United States that better exemplify the devastating effects of the criminalization of poverty than those in ZIP code 53206 on the city’s north side, where almost 96% of residents are African-American. The poorest ZIP code in the city, 53206 is also home to the highest incarceration rate in the world, with one study finding that 62% of men in the community have spent time in prison.

Between 2012 and 2016, 53206 had the highest number of defendants, cases, and outstanding debt on judgments in the city. Those who have become ensnared by the criminal justice system are forced to make agonizing decisions about whether to expend their limited resources on legal obligations, or on basic necessities like housing, food and medicine instead. This affects their ability to work and take care of their families and, ultimately, traps them in a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle from which it is very difficult to escape.

The problems in Milwaukee are serious, but action has been taken in the right direction. To the credit of the Municipal Court System and Chief Judge Derek Mosley, new policies have been adopted to make it easier for those living in poverty to avoid jail and access desperately needed supportive services.

Johnston Center facade Legal assistance is available to all defendants, outstanding warrants can be cleared by showing up in court, driver’s license suspensions caused by court debt can be dismissed, and specialty courts for veterans and those experiencing homelessness provide mental health counseling and resume assistance, among other available services.

So too are the city’s investments in quality housing that is affordable for poor Milwaukeeans a step in the right direction. Earlier this year, Mayor Tom Barrett announced a plan to increase the supply of affordable homes in the city by 10,000 units in the next decade. A safe, stable home is not a panacea for all social challenges, but it is a prerequisite to financial stability. Milwaukee has the highest percentage of renters in the Midwest, and half of them are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing alone. This greatly reduces their economic capacity and limits their ability to pay for other necessities. When individuals and families have access to stable, affordable housing, their health improves, their children do better in school, and they are more financially stable, which allows them to devote resources to things like continuing education, job training and building personal savings.

Citizens of Milwaukee support these actions, too. Several weeks ago, nearly 200 people gathered at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center for a panel discussion hosted by Mercy Housing Lakefront focused on the intersection of poverty, race, criminal justice and housing. The passion in the room reflected a real commitment that exists in Milwaukee to create a city where all people can live in hope. Change is only possible when people from all walks of life work together toward a common goal, and the first step is a willingness to talk openly about these issues. Together, we can eliminate ZIP codes as the defining characteristic of the kind of life available to the citizens of Milwaukee.

By Mark Angelini, Mercy Housing Lakefront president and Dr. Peter Edelman, Georgetown University professor and author. Originally published in Urban Milwaukee.