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'Alarming' racial disparities continue to plague Dane County

'Alarming' racial disparities continue to plague Dane County

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Blacks are 5.5 times more likely than whites to be unemployed in Dane County.

Three-quarters of the county’s African-American children live in poverty , compared to 5 percent of white children.

Half of all black high school students don’t graduate on time, compared to 16 percent of white children.

African-American children are 15 times more likely than their white counterparts to land in foster care. And black juveniles are six times more likely to be arrested than white juveniles.

Those are some of the findings released Wednesday in a report, “Race to Equity,” by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. The report compared 40 indicators of well-being for Dane County residents, mostly between 2007 and 2011. In nearly every category, the study found, blacks, who make up 6.5 percent of the county’s population, fare much worse than whites.

Eighteen months in the making, the report is offered as a baseline against which future efforts to close racial disparities in Dane County can be measured. It seeks to encapsulate and expand on previous studies that showed racial gaps in educational attainment, poverty, employment, participation in the criminal justice system and other indicators.

Although some indicators show improvement — for example, arrests of black juveniles and adults is down significantly over the past four years — most of the numbers are bleak.

“It’s no secret that we’ve had these disparities. A lot of groups have been working on this,” said Bob Jacobson, spokesman for the council. “But the approach to tackling the problem hasn’t been coordinated and comprehensive, which is really what’s needed.”

Disparities are common across the United States, the report said, but the gap between the quality of life for whites and blacks is much worse in Dane County, the epicenter for progressive politics in Wisconsin and often ranked among one of the best places in America to live.

Rural or urban, north or south, across the United States, Dane County is “rock bottom” when it comes to racial disparities, Jacobson said, adding, “It’s really jarring.”

The study pointed to a variety of factors that may be driving the chasm in the experience between white and black residents of Dane County. Low-skilled or under-educated workers often cannot compete with the highly educated workforce from which Madison-area employers can draw.

Many African-Americans live in geographically isolated neighborhoods in and around Madison that lack basic infrastructure, including a major employer, church or social gathering spots.

And many of the roughly 32,000 black residents in Dane County are recent arrivals who may lack the social and family ties that could help them advance. Between 2000 and 2010, Dane County saw a 50 percent rise in the number of African-Americans residents.

Selena Pettigrew has seen all of that and more in the five years since she moved from Evanston, Ill., to Madison to be closer to her children and grandchildren. Pettigrew, 60, president of the Allied Dunn’s Marsh Neighborhood Association, said both Evanston and Madison are well-off college towns, but the job opportunities seem more sparse here, especially for people with few skills and no car.

The neighborhood, which straddles Madison and Fitchburg, has no school, grocery store or neighborhood community center and can be a lengthy bus ride to school or work. Many adults, she said, have no job.

Pettigrew believes her neighborhood near Verona Road and the Beltline has seen great improvement in the past five years, but she said there are still too many idle adults and too few services to help them.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi acknowledged the numbers are “alarming” and the challenge daunting.

“It confirms my observation that a rising tide does not lift all boats,” Parisi said. “This report is important because it confirms that and quantifies that.”

But Parisi said there are “nuts and bolts” solutions that leaders and the community can implement to shrink the gap, some of which he is proposing in his 2014 budget.

One example is a $350,000 program to be paid for by United Way and Dane County that includes home visits to families of children ages 0 to 3 in the attendance areas of Westside Elementary School in Sun Prairie and Sugar Creek Elementary School in Verona. The program’s goal is to support family stability and ensure children are ready for school.

Other initiatives include a $250,000 partnership with Operation Fresh Start to operate a year-round Youth Conservation Corps in the county parks and a $65,000 expansion of the Gardens for Empowerment program in which young people who are at risk of failure work in community gardens.

“On the positive side,” Parisi said, “our community is very ready to address this.”

The report was unveiled Wednesday during the YWCA’s annual Racial Justice Summit, attended by about 500 local leaders, representatives of social-service agencies, the UW-Madison and business.


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