Where in America is the gap largest between the haves and have-nots?
Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy says it’s right here, in southeastern Wisconsin.
At a Nov. 5, 2010, Common Council meeting, the chairman of the council’s Finance & Personnel committee said he fears there will be cuts in shared revenue that the state gives to cities. If there are, Murphy said, he hoped they would adhere to the shared revenue formula, which takes into account the higher level of poverty in Milwaukee versus cities such as Mequon.
Then Murphy declared:
"Mequon and Milwaukee have the highest disparity of income in the country."
Mequon is well known to be one of Milwaukee’s most well-to-do neighbors. And for years Milwaukee has ranked among the nation’s most impoverished cities -- a ranking reconfirmed by U.S. Census data released in September.
But in a nation filled with poor cities and wealthy suburbs, is the largest chasm really between Milwaukee and Mequon?
Murphy, a 21-year alderman not known for hyperbole, cited U.S. census figures to back up his statement: Based on the most recent data, 31.9 percent of Milwaukee families had incomes of less than $25,000 and 1.9 percent of Mequon families did.
That’s a gap of 30 percentage points.
When asked about his statement by PolitiFact Wisconsin, Murphy said: "I can’t imagine there’s anywhere in the country that beats that."
Not the strongest start when it comes to research methodology.
"If I’m wrong," Murphy added, "I’ll be happy."
OK. Let’s find out.
Murphy told us he was referring to big cities and suburbs that share a border. That’s an unconventional way to look at it -- for instance, it includes Mequon, in Ozaukee County, but not River Hills in Milwaukee County. But we’ll start there.
For the numbers, Murphy used 2009 figures for Milwaukee and 2006-2008 numbers for Mequon -- cities its size are not updated as frequently as Milwaukee.
We can make a better comparison -- between Milwaukee and Mequon, and between other U.S. cities and their suburbs -- by using 2006-2008 census figures for all of them.
Those figures show 27.5 percent of Milwaukee families had incomes of less than $25,000. That means the gap between Milwaukee and Mequon was 25.6 percentage points.
That’s our marker, as we look at other communities.
We didn’t look at every major U.S. city and its suburbs. But with just a few checks -- focusing on cities near Milwaukee on the income scale -- we found two city-suburb combinations that had larger income gaps.
- In Cleveland, 36.2 percent of families had incomes of less than $25,000. In neighboring Shaker Heights, the figure was 7.8 percent. That’s a gap of 28.4 percentage points.
- In Hartford, Conn., 41.4 percent of families had incomes of less than $25,000. In neighboring West Hartford, the figure was 4.8 percent, for a gap of 36.6 percentage points.
There may well be others with a greater disparity, but we stopped there.
Meanwhile, what about other suburbs in the Milwaukee area -- those that don’t necessarily share a border with Milwaukee?
For communities with a population under 20,000, the most recent figures for families with an income of less than $25,000 are from the 2000 census. Using those numbers, we looked at each community in Milwaukee, Ozaukee and Waukesha counties.
In Milwaukee, 31.9 percent of families earned less than $25,000 and in Mequon the figure was 3.7 percent.
But the gap was even larger between Milwaukee and six other suburbs, all in Waukesha County: Chenequa (3.3 percent), North Prairie (3.2 percent), Town of Delafield (3.2 percent), Wales (3 percent), Genesee (2.8 percent) and Merton (2.7 percent).
Of course, Murphy was making a national comparison. And the approach he used was just one way of looking at income disparity in a region.
In an October 2010 study, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher Lois Quinn looked at 55 metropolitan areas and what percentage of the poor residents in each -- those with income below the federal poverty level -- lived in the major city. For Milwaukee, 73.2 percent of the area’s poor residents were in the city.
In contrast, Lincoln, Neb., was home to 94 percent of that metro area’s poor. Several others, based on the data available, also had higher percentages.
Using a different measure, median income, a 2010 study by the Brookings Institution also cited Milwaukee as among the metro areas with high city-suburb income disparity -- but again not the highest.
In Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit, the gap in median income between the city and its suburbs reached nearly $30,000 in 2008, the study said. But the gap reached $40,000 between two Connecticut cities -- Hartford and Bridgeport -- and their suburbs.
To be sure, the city’s poverty rate is among the highest in the nation -- a stubborn statistic that has defied efforts by policymakers and politicians to change it. But in neither measure was the city’s disparity gap at the top.
OK, enough numbers. What do they show us?
In making a point about how state shared revenue should be distributed to cities, Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy said the largest income disparity in the country is between Milwaukee and Mequon. While comprehensive studies have ranked Milwaukee near the top in income disparity, Murphy went too far in lining Milwaukee up against neighboring Mequon.
With just a little checking, we found two city-suburb combinations that have a larger disparity. Murphy said he’d be happy if proven wrong, since that would mean Milwaukee doesn’t have the worst income disparity.
Put a smile on your face, alderman: We rate your statement False.