Elizabeth Brown, 43, is stuck in a cycle of being behind on her bills. And she is not alone as poverty remains a pernicious fixture in Milwaukee for her and many others. (PrincessSafiya Byers/ Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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Unpaid bills often put Elizabeth Brown in the position of choosing between which of her family’s needs should get priority, a struggle familiar to many Milwaukeeans.

Brown, 43, is in many ways the face of poverty in Milwaukee. 

She is stuck in a cycle that has her consistently choosing between feeding her family or paying for items like rent or utilities.

As a result, digging out is a pervasive feature of her life and those of many others in Milwaukee, which holds the second-highest poverty rate among the nation’s 50 most populous cities. 

In early April, Brown applied for energy assistance. But she didn’t receive the help until mid-August, a week after her energy had been disconnected. 

During that week, Brown said she had to spend so much extra money and miss so much work that she is now falling behind on other bills.  

“Anytime I get extra money, I’m using it to catch up on bills, so now I’m back at zero and trying to catch up again,” she said. “How do I ever get caught up, if I’m always catching up?”

 In 2009, Brown was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder involving musculoskeletal pain and fatigue plus possible sleep, memory and mood issues as well as carpal tunnel. She hasn’t been able to work a full-time job since.

“The lifting and bending are too much for me,” she said.  

Brown, a single mother, said she was denied disability assistance and has since been making ends meet for herself and her four underaged children by working part-time jobs as she can.  

With her current part-time job doing community work through the  Dominican Center, Brown said her monthly income varies from $500 to $700 but her rent alone is $775 a month.

“I make it work,” she said. “My adult children help me out sometimes and the rest of the time, I do what I have to.”

 Expensive to be poor 

Brown lives in a food desert, the term given to areas without sufficient access to healthy foods. She said even FoodShare benefits don’t feel like enough. She has no transportation and the closest grocery store to her is a Pick ‘N Save that is about a 20-minute walk from where she lives in the Amani neighborhood.

“Even with food stamps, shopping by my house is expensive,” Brown said. “And ridiculously expensive when I’m spending money daily because I can’t refrigerate food.” 

Brown said she spent close to $50 a day on food the week her energy was disconnected. 

“It is expensive to be poor. I don’t think people understand that,” said Nicole Thompson, a community stakeholder.  “Food and gas are more expensive in this neighborhood (Amani) than it is in the suburbs.”

 Brown said slumlords and other housing issues only add to her struggles. 

“Your home should be your solace,” Brown said. “But how can I sit and try to think about a plan to progress my life when my house is falling into disrepair around me.”

 When a home is falling into disrepair, people are encouraged to call the Department of Neighborhood Services, or DNS.

But “most of the people we serve aren’t going to call DNS because they don’t have anywhere to go,” said Lorenzya Polnitz, the director of community services for COA Youth and Family Centers. “Yes, they might get put up in a hotel for a few days, but if I was already struggling to pay rent, how can I afford to move?”

George Hinton, the CEO of the Social Development Commission, said poverty is expensive in non-traditional ways as well. 

“These homes, specifically in Milwaukee, are in such disrepair that their heat or air is going straight out of the window,” he said.

 Poverty in Milwaukee 

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Milwaukee has the second-highest  poverty rate among the top 50 most populated cities in the United States, with 24.6% of the city living in poverty. 

“Milwaukee never really developed a strong middle class,” Hinton said. “Rather than creating a business strategy like many other cities, we created a work strategy. So when the jobs left, so did a lot of people’s only source of income.” 

Conor Williams, the economic policy analyst at the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, said the deindustrialization that took place in the 1970s remains a significant contributor to poverty in Milwaukee. 

As in much of the Midwest and other areas, a hollowing out of relatively well-paying manufacturing jobs occurred. 

“Many families and individuals lost their economic footing during those times and have struggled to find it again,” he said. “And people have an idea that there is nothing they can do.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Black people make up the largest portion of people in Milwaukee living in poverty at 43.2%, followed by whites at 22%, then Hispanics at 17%. 

Hinton said Milwaukee’s segregation plays a role in its economy as well. 

“Milwaukee was and continues to be one of the most highly segregated cities in the country,” he said. “It is easy to disenfranchise a people when they are geographically separated from others.”

 Barriers to escaping poverty 

According to Abra Fortson, the government affairs and executive support manager for the Social Development Commission, the organization has found barriers that keep people stuck in poverty. One is cognitive dissonance.

 “People have a fear of moving out of poverty,” Fortson said. “They don’t want to do too well or make too much money because they may lose their government benefits and that fear of losing those crutches leaves them with no desire to be successful.”

Polnitz and Thompson said fear of the results of trying are also reasons that people who are struggling don’t always reach out for the help they may need.

 “For a long time reaching out for help would result in people’s children being removed from their homes,” Thompson added. “So to avoid losing their kids, people stopped reaching out, and so now we have people that are choosing to just go without.” 

Another barrier is the “isms,” discriminatory practices and beliefs based on stereotypes and ignorance.

 “We could talk about redlining in the ’60s and its lasting effect on people of color in Milwaukee,” Fortson said. “Or we could talk about very recent reports of redlining or price gouging against (Black, Indigenous and other people of color) homeowners.”

 Redlining involves restricting financial and other services to residents of a particular area based on their race or ethnicity.

Trauma is also a barrier. 

“The experience of poverty is extremely daunting, and it has a significant impact on the psyche of people growing up poor,” Hinton said. “People have developed a skill set on how to survive poverty but never to get out of poverty.”

 The last barrier is systems and policies.

“Systems and policies consistently fail people,” said Fortson. “When economic opportunities come to Milwaukee they are never where the people who need the jobs most can reach them. That’s a system-fail.”

Needed: A comprehensive system 

According to Brown, social services organizations can sometimes do more harm than good.

Brown recounted a time in which she wasted valuable time because she had to go to a social service organization’s office.

“I spent what could have been a full day of work sitting in an office because the organization’s communication was unclear,” Brown said. 

“Now as someone who is already behind financially, I am missing work, which means money, to get help, and it just feels like no one cares,” Brown said. 

Brown said if social services organizations were just more transparent about the requirements and the timeline for applying and getting assistance, people would be better off. 

“It’s disappointing when programs can’t help you,” Brown said. “But it’s easier to just deny me the help than to have me waiting for help I’m never going to get. At least when I know I’m not getting the help, I can plan.”

According to Hinton, the poverty we see now was created by generations of systems and policies designed to disinvest in certain people and communities.

  “This is what years and years of conditioning looks like,” he said. “Now, we have so many people who are more comfortable relying on a social service for help than moving toward success for themselves.” 

Understanding that poverty isn’t a choice 

Hinton said the only thing that will change poverty is for people to understand it.  

“Our communities are ill-informed,” he said. “They don’t understand what they are experiencing, so they don’t acknowledge it. We’ll never see change without acknowledgement.” 

According to Thompson, a part of understanding poverty is understanding the mindset of those who experience it.

“Most people who are in poverty today were born into poverty,” she said. “And when you are born into poverty you operate from a different lens from someone who wasn’t.” 

She said it’s not an easy mindset to escape because some people have never experienced life without a government assistance security net. 

“When I started making decent money and was no longer eligible for food stamps, I felt like my life was over,” she said. “You know, like what I am going to do, how am I going to feed my kids?” 

Hinton said understanding the way that all these things work to keep someone in poverty creates an understanding.

 “If you live in certain parts of this city, you don’t have access to quality food, health care, quality education for your children, quality housing or a job with a life-sustaining wage,” he said. “And then you pair that with fear of success, discrimination, predatory property owners and ignorance.” 

Thompson said the most important thing to understand is that poverty is not a choice. 

“Nobody wants to be poor. People are just working with the hand they were dealt,” she said.

 ‘When you know better, you do better’

Rashaad Washington, the owner of Pro Painter USA and former owner of Pro Trade Job Development, a construction trade training program, said moving out of poverty is all about leveraging opportunities created for people in poverty.

 “The GED programs, small business grants and free courses are all assets that can help someone help themselves,” he said. “But the problem with these types of programs is that they rarely advertise themselves.”

 He said in his experience, it is then solely up to an individual to pull themselves up out of poverty.

 “We know that it is a systemic issue so it should be addressed by both the government and the constituent, but we also know that’s not the case,” he said. “You should never be waiting for something because someone said they’re going to give it to you.” 

Washington said it’s all about education and opportunities. 

“When you know better, you do better,” he said.

Community Advocates Public Policy Institute produced a report on pathways to ending poverty in 2012.

 “There are known ways to assist people in lifting themselves from poverty, there is just a lack of sense of urgency to do it,” said Williams. “Right now, the U.S democratic capitalism is operating at its worst because it is exploiting people.” 

He said the most effective way to reduce poverty is to invest in human capital. 

 “In the last 30 years, there has been a huge increase on how much money is spent on corrections,” he said. “We spent $1.4 billion on it. If we invested that same money into job training programs, we wouldn’t need (to spend) as much on corrections.” 

According to Williams, because people who are in poverty are urgently trying to pay bills, they don’t get to invest in themselves. 

“Paid training allows people to invest in themselves,” he said. “Once you can invest in yourself, you can contribute economically and do well.”

 Hinton said education is key. 

“History informs us as to why we are where we are,” he said. “If you can understand how you got here, you can do your best not to be here again.”

 Resources for Milwaukee residents in need

For questions or concerns about resources, text MKE to 73224 to connect with a reporter through News414, a joint project of Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and Wisconsin Watch. 

For emergency resource assistance, call IMPACT 211 at 2-1-1 

Here is a resource guide for tenants.

Here is a resource guide for homeowners.

Here is a resource guide on food.

Here is a resource guide on mental health.

A version of this story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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PrincessSafiya Byers is a Report for America corp member working as a staff reporter at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service where she covers health, minority businesses, faith, jobs, housing and transportation. A proud Milwaukee native, Byers is a 2020 graduate of Marquette University. She has had internships with the Milwaukee Community Journal, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Byers has also co-produced a community podcast and written for community newsletters.