A Nov. 16 article in USA Today, that listed the 15 worst cities for black Americans included Racine. Landing at no. 3 on the list, just behind the metro Milwaukee area and Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa, metropolitan area, the list was created by examining a set of eight data points.
Racine Mayor Cory Mason was not too thrilled to find the city on the list. Again. Racine made an appearance on the same list a year ago, just a few days after he was sworn into office. Mason sat down with Racine County Eye to discuss some of the implications of the article, and more importantly, how the City of Racine will address the issues pointed out in the article.
Jobs and skills
In Racine, the black unemployment rate was 16 percent, twice the rate of the white unemployment rate, according to the United Way of Racine County. So we asked Mason how he plans to bridge the gap.
RCE: Are there enough jobs here now to keep young people here? Are they the jobs they want?
CM: Those are two very different questions. That’s the challenge. A generation ago, you could graduate from high school, have your pick of factory jobs. Get a UAW card and you would be middle class. You wouldn’t be rich, but you could afford to buy a house and maybe your kids would go to college someday. That is how Racine worked for most of the 20th century.
RCE: How is it different now?
CM: There are still jobs that available. If you talk to employers, they say there is a real shortage of employees. We haven’t seen the wage increases we would like to see. Part of the Foxconn effect we are seeing is incumbent companies are already giving raises in anticipation of keeping their workforce with Foxconn’s arrival.
But the jobs out there now require more skill and more training. But wages have not kept up with the growth of the economy. Workers at the bottom level share less and less of a share of the growth we’ve seen in our economy. We have to get back to a place where if you are working full time, you are not living in poverty.
There are a number of ways to get at that. One is affordable housing. Part of that is workforce training to get those people into higher wage jobs. But part of it is that we need some policy changes to get people who are working full time to not be qualified for Food Stamps or other government subsidies. We have to change the way we look at it.
Foxconn’s entry into the labor market here is going to drive wages up for everybody, which is a good component. But how much we can really take advantage of it will depend on how inclusive we are, how much job training we do, how much we can address the skills gap. All of that comes into play.
Is there one key solution?
RCE: When people start a discussion with you about (racial disparity), do they usually have one thing in mind that needs to be taken care of before anything else?
CM: Sometimes they do. But at the end of the day, what they are talking about is: Do people have family-supporting wages? Do they have access to affordable healthcare? Do they have housing security? Do they have the education they need to achieve those things? It’s really those four things that, in some form or another (are most important).
It’s those four things that (support) the Middle Class. Sometimes people will say “If we could just do this one thing.” Often, those are very important things, but what I’ve learned is they are very interdependent. I’ve also learned that it’s very important to stay in your lane.
RCE: Can you explain that?
CM: Some proposals (from) legislators would have mayors taking over schools and school districts. I’m not an expert on curriculum and instruction, but I know when kids go to school poor and hungry, they don’t do as well. So, what can I do to assure that fewer kids are going to school hungry or with less housing security than they should otherwise have.
The local collaborations we have had in this county, with the schools and Gateway and the non-profit organizations has been remarkable. There is a lot more work to do. But one positive that comes from discussions like this is that it reemphasizes that those partnerships are there. That’s a positive. In that regard, naming that these are issues that need to be addressed–even for the people who work on them every day–this is why we get up and go to work to address these inequalities.
RCE: If there was one state or federal program that you would like to see revived or enhanced, what would it be?
CM: It’s hard to say just one. It’s jobs and education and healthcare and housing security (programs). Those four all go hand in hand. We could use more of those resources, whether state or federal, to get at poverty abatement issues in real terms.
We could also use a lot less red tape. The amount of time we spend applying for some of these state and federal grants (is extreme). If they would just let us put the money in the community without having to spend weeks on compliance memos, it would help a lot.