Monday, August 30, 2010

Brain Drain Report: Wisconsin

Wisconsin is broken. The state is in a horrible fix. How do I know? Too many people want to leave:

A majority of Wisconsinites believe the state's best and brightest are leaving Wisconsin to work elsewhere, according to polling results released Sunday that reflected a level of pessimism on several levels.

Milwaukeeans in the polling had a more negative outlook than the rest of the state: 68% of Milwaukeeans said the best and brightest leave Wisconsin to work, while 62% of Wisconsin residents agreed with the statement.

The same percentage of Milwaukeeans and statewide residents - 58% - said Wisconsin is on the wrong track.

"We clearly have a high quality of life overall, but it's opportunity, opportunity, opportunity," said Ken Goldstein, the University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor who directed the polling of more than 3,300 Wisconsin adults this summer.

The polling is part of a multifaceted study of long-term economic, education and quality-of-life trends called Refocus Wisconsin. It was commissioned by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that touted the effort as "the most comprehensive ever" of Wisconsinites' attitudes and concerns.

I've read this before, hundreds of times. Bad policy pushes out good people. The usual refrain is that taxes are too high. In a new twist on an old theme, Refocus Wisconsin spins the following yarn:

The state has indeed changed enormously in the last quarter-century. Old assumptions have been upended, and troubling new questions have been raised. Although Wisconsin’s changing ethnic profile presents definite opportunities, the major trends have been experienced by most residents as a movement downward—in their quality of life, in their satisfaction with government, and in their prospects for the future. But the gathering crisis has so far been met with a collective shrug. It is the purpose of this report to call Wisconsinites to awareness and then to action, because it is only through informed awareness and concerted action that our state can reclaim its place in the nation’s vanguard. It is only through knowledge and hard work that we can, after so many years of attrition, make our next quarter-century a time of change for the better.

It's a nostalgic piece full of populist rhetoric. Wisconsin has lost its way, which is why so many folks want to move someplace else. Government is largely to blame for the fall from grace. But it isn't the only scapegoat:

As metropolitan Milwaukee assumes a broader ethnic identity, the rest of the state has begun to look more like Milwaukee. In Jefferson, the self-proclaimed “City of Gemuetlichkeit,” where the cemeteries have their share of Moldenhauers and Haubenschilds, at least 7 percent of the population—and more than 12 percent of public school enrollment—is Hispanic. The biggest restaurant on Main Street is El Chaparral, “House of Authentic Mexican Food.” In Portage County, generations of Polish farmers brought their produce to market on the public square in downtown Stevens Point. The farmer’s market is still going strong, but today’s vendors are more likely to be Hmong than Polish. Even Madison, a city whose diversity was once supplied by international students on the University of Wisconsin campus, has developed a demographic profile that older residents might find surprising: 6.4 percent African-American, 6.2 percent Asian, and 5.9 percent Latino in 2005. Some of the larger trends of the last quarter-century have begun to intersect. As Wisconsin’s dairy herds increase in size, there has been a corresponding increase in the immigrant labor force. Latinos make up nearly 60 percent of the dairy workers on farms with over 300 cows—a total of more than 5,000 people.

The numbers for the state as a whole are revealing. Between 1980 and 2008, African-Americans grew from 3.9 percent of Wisconsin’s population to 6.1 percent, Asians from 0.4 to 2 percent, Native Americans from 0.6 to 1 percent, and Hispanics from 1.3 to 5.1 percent. These traditionally defined minorities accounted for 14.2 percent of the state’s population in 2008—a sharp increase from 6.2 percent in 1980. You can still celebrate Syttende Mai with the Norwegians in Stoughton, observe Cesky Den with the Czechs in Hillsboro, and enjoy Oktoberfest with the Germans in Milwaukee and elsewhere, but other players have taken their place at the table.

The implications for the state—social, political, and economic—are still emerging. At the very least, the presence of so many different cultures is forcing other residents to recalibrate their ideas of what it means to be a Wisconsinite. The Badger State was once a polyglot’s paradise, but the languages its citizens spoke were practically all European. Today’s context is global, and the state’s population, no less than its economy, reflects forces that are international in scope. How well the natives and newcomers are adjusting to each other remains open to question. There have been relatively few incidents of open conflict between the older groups and their more recently arrived neighbors, but there has also been relatively limited interaction and even less assimilation.

I see thinly veiled xenophobia. More pertinent to my blog is Wisconsin's ability to attract so many newcomers, particularly the foreign born. This is an indicator of economic vitality, success. Wisconsin is a demographic winner.

Wisconsin does need to refocus from obsessing outmigration to tracking inmigration. How is such a dysfunctional state able to attract anyone? The answer is that things aren't as bad the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute would have you believe. To make a point they trot out the red herring of brain drain, a policy boondoggle if there ever was one.

To be sure, the population changes are a challenge. Government reform is always a good conversation to have. There is no need to stir up outmigration hysteria. Unless, a more thorough review of the numbers doesn't serve your agenda.


Andrew said...


I recently came across your blog and just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your posts. Burgh Diaspora is something that has quickly become a daily "must read" for me. Thank you for what you're doing here.

Jim Russell said...


Thank you for the compliment and taking the time to provide some feedback. Your kind words are much appreciated.