It was a long and sometimes tense Board of Estimates meeting last night, during which the City’s finance committee spent nearly seven hours hearing public testimony and hammering out details on several current spending proposals as well as the 2017 capital budget.
One brief remark from Mayor Paul Soglin relatively early in the meeting, however, raised some eyebrows.
Lane Hanson, a community member who spoke in opposition to the renewal of the contract to keep Madison police in the schools, noted — as many have noted before — that Madison has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation, as outlined in the 2013 Race to Equity Report.
Responding to Hanson’s testimony, Soglin said, “It is absolutely false making statements that this city is among the worst in the United States in regards to racial disparities. And not only that, but a review of economic progress in the last five years shows that we are probably among the best, if not the best in the United States, in terms of improving both household income as well as lowering the number of families who are living below the poverty line.”
The mayor’s statement stands in stark contrast to the Race to Equity report, which says, “the alarming truth is that our numbers, taken as a whole, suggest that the distance between whites and blacks (in terms of well-being, status and outcomes) is as wide or wider in Dane County than in any jurisdiction (urban or rural, North or South) for which we have seen comparable statistics.”
“It is no secret that Mayor Soglin has been looking for ways to discredit the Race to Equity report since it came out in 2013,” said Alder Maurice Cheeks, a member of the Board of Estimates. “I understand that he is doing this because as Mayor for the better part of the past 40 years, no one would be in a position to feel more defensive about our city’s persistent multi-generational racial disparities. But I was floored and offended to hear him flat out deny our community’s reality.”
According to the Race to Equity report, in Dane County in 2012, 295 out of every 1,000 African American adults were arrested compared to 36 of every 1,000 white adults, a disparity of 259; by contrast, in the United States, 82 of every 1,000 African American adults are arrested compared to 33 of every 1,000 white adults, a disparity of 49.
Similarly, the unemployment rate among Dane County African Americans was 25 percent in 2011, compared to five percent among whites in Dane County, a disparity of 20 percentage points; nationally, in the same year, the unemployment rate among African Americans was 18 percent, ten percentage points higher than the white unemployment rate of eight percent.
The overall unemployment rate has declined sharply in the last five years to 3.0 percent in Dane County and 4.9 percent nationally according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data; however, that is an overall measurement and says nothing about racial disparities.
Asked to provide the data from the last five years that would support his statement that Madison could be “the best in the United States in terms of improving both household income as well as lowering the number of families who are living below the poverty line,” Soglin aide Katey Crowley said the office would be unable to provide that information in time to be included in this story.
If true, the mayor’s description of economic gains over the last five years would represent a startling reversal from the previous five years.
The Race to Equity report found that the percentage of African-American children living in poverty in Dane County went up from 46 to 75 percent from 2006-2011 while the percentage of white children living in poverty went down from six to five percent, meaning the disparity between black and white rose a staggering 30 percentage points, from 40 to 70. Nationally in the same period, poverty among African American children rose from 35 to 39 percent while poverty among white children rose from 11 to 14 percent. The national disparity between black and white childhood poverty rose only one percentage point, from 24 to 25.
Alder Shiva Bidar, who is not a member of the Board of Estimates but attended the public meeting, said the mayor’s statement was “another example of the two Madisons.”
“Instead of denying the realities of the lives in our communities of color, we should focus on investing in innovative solutions that have been offered by our communities of color such as Justified Anger’s Our Madison Plan, Dane County Latinx Community Call to Action, or the Focused Interruption 15-Point Plan,” Bidar said.
“A great community does more than tout its awards,” said Cheeks, one of the authors of the 15-Point Plan. “A great community also acknowledges its shortcomings. Good leadership doesn’t involve denying your present circumstance, particularly regarding something as important as systemic racial disparities. Madison has a ton of room for improvement regarding racial disparities, and the road to drastic change doesn’t start with our mayor denying this.”