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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher February 13, 2012

Conservative black sheriff says Milwaukee blacks have high unemployment, truancy, infant mortality; low graduation rate, reading scores

When an African-American tea party congressman held a "conservative black forum" on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23, 2012, the Milwaukee County sheriff was among the dozen panelists.

David A. Clarke Jr. told the host, U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Florida, and a national C-SPAN audience about the woes of Wisconsin’s largest city.

"I come from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city with a lot of issues, a lot of issues," Clarke said in his opening remarks.

Then he rattled off a set of startling statistics:

"Fifty-five percent black male unemployment. Truancy rate of sixty percent -- sixty percent of students in the Milwaukee Public Schools system do not attend school regularly. They only graduate fifty percent of the students that do, and when they come out of there the diploma is not worth the paper that it's written on, and they probably can't even read it. We have the worst fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores in the nation. We lead in infant mortality rate and I could go on and on and on."

Clarke is a Democrat in a largely Democratic county, but he is an outspoken conservative who often speaks bluntly about issues outside of law enforcement.

So is the Milwaukee area really as bleak as the sheriff paints it? We’ll look at each of the five parts of Clarke’s claim: Unemployment, truancy, graduation rate, reading scores and infant mortality.

Clarke's spokeswoman, Fran McLaughlin, confirmed that Clarke was speaking about African-Americans, rather than the total population, with the statistics he cited. She said Clarke’s statements were based on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stories, but she didn’t provide any specific one.


Clarke said Milwaukee has "55 percent black male unemployment."

Does that mean the unemployment rate among black males is 55 percent?


Clarke was likely referring to a Journal Sentinel article, published the same day as the forum, about a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study that reported an employment rate -- as opposed to the more commonly reported unemployment rate -- among black males.

The study says nearly 45 percent of the area's black males ages 16 to 64 were employed in 2010.

So, presumably the remaining 55 percent were unemployed.

But the study arrived at its figures by counting virtually all black males, including those who aren’t actively looking for work, such as those who are incarcerated, disabled or full-time students.

In contrast, unemployment -- the rate most commonly measured by the government and reported in the news media -- is based on the number people who are unemployed but actively looking for work. That’s a much smaller group.

Indeed, the UWM study said that black male unemployment rate for metro Milwaukee in 2010 was 29.5 percent.

So, this part of Clarke’s claim is misleading in that "black male unemployment" is far less than 55 percent.


Clarke said the truancy rate among black students in Milwaukee Public Schools is 60 percent.

The latest data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, for the 2009-2010 school year, show 59.5 percent of black MPS students were habitually truant -- absent from school without an acceptable excuse for part or all of five or more days during a semester.  

So this part of Clark’s claim, rounded up a half-percentage point, is accurate.

Graduation rate

Clarke said the graduation rate among black Milwaukee Public Schools students is 50 percent.

But, as a May 2011 Journal Sentinel article reported, the 2010 high school graduation rate for black MPS students was 59.5 percent, according to the latest available figures from the Department of Public Instruction.

That means this part of Clarke’s claim is wrong.

Reading scores

Clarke said black Milwaukee Public Schools students have "the worst fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores in the nation."

The Journal Sentinel reported in December 2011 on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered by the federal government in urban school districts.

On the reading test, black fourth-graders in MPS tied with Cleveland for last place among 20 districts studied. Black MPS eighth-graders ranked 18th, ahead of the District of Columbia and Fresno, Calif.

So, Clarke is a bit off on quoting the study. This part of his claim is also overstated in that the study considered only 20 school districts; the study doesn’t indicate whether MPS reading scores are among the worst for all U.S. districts.

Infant mortality

Clarke said "we lead" in black infant mortality.

The Journal Sentinel reported in January 2011 on a Milwaukee Health Department study which found that, from 2005 through 2008, the black infant mortality rate in Milwaukee was 15.7 deaths for every 1,000 births -- 2.5 times higher than the white rate.

The report said that for a slightly shorter period -- 2005-2007 -- Milwaukee’s black infant mortality rate was lower than Detroit’s and Philadelphia’s, but higher than many large cities, including New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis.

So, although the study didn’t cover a large number of cities, Clarke’s suggestion that Milwaukee is among cities with a higher black infant mortality rate is accurate.

Our rating

Clarke was correct in two parts of his claim: Black Milwaukee Public Schools students have a 60 percent truancy rate and Milwaukee has one of the higher black infant mortality rates among U.S. cities.

Clarke was wrong in two parts. He overstated unemployment among black males in metro Milwaukee, which was 29.5 percent in 2010, and he understated the graduation rate among black MPS students; it is nearly 60 percent.

On the remaining part of the claim, reading scores among black MPS students were nearly the worst among 20 school districts in a study. But that doesn’t mean they were the worst in the nation, which is what Clarke said.

On balance, we rate Clarke’s statement Half True.

Our Sources

C-SPAN, conservative black forum video, Jan. 23, 2012 (at 18:00)

Email interview, Milwaukee County sheriff public information officer Fran McLaughlin, Feb. 8, 2012

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, tea party caucus members for 112th Congress, July 12, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Employment of black men drops drastically," Jan. 23, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin’s graduation rate dips with new calculation method," May 5, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "MPS scores near bottom in national test," Dec. 7, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "For Milwaukee’s children, an early grave," Jan. 22, 2011

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "Race and male employment in the wake of the great recession," January 2012

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2010 high school completion rates by race/ethnicity

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2009-2010 black Milwaukee Public Schools truancy rate

National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2011 reading scores for black fourth-grade students (choose Black in drop-down menu)

National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2011 reading scores for black eighth-grade students (choose Black in drop-down menu)

Milwaukee Health Department, 2010 City of Milwaukee fetal infant mortality review report

Interview and email interview, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman John Johnson, Feb. 9, 2012

Interview and email interview, Milwaukee Public Schools spokesman Tony Tagliavia, Feb. 9 and 10, 2012

Interview and email interview, Milwaukee Health Department family and community health services director Anna Benton, Feb. 9, 2012

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Marvin Pratt, former acting mayor of Milwaukee, says black male unemployment tops 50 percent," Nov. 17, 2010

Email interview, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Marc Levine, Feb. 9, 2012

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Conservative black sheriff says Milwaukee blacks have high unemployment, truancy, infant mortality; low graduation rate, reading scores

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