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UW-Milwaukee - Center for Economic Development

Policy Research Report Abstract

Suburban Sprawl and the "Secession" of the Affluent: Metropolitan Polarization in Milwaukee: 1987-1997, July 1999, by Marc V. Levine

Executive Summary

Although large numbers of metropolitan Milwaukee's affluent households have been moving to the suburbs for half a century, the abandonment by the affluent of the city of Milwaukee for increasingly distant locations in the region reached staggering proportions in the 1990s. Between 1987-1997, the proportion of metro Milwaukee's tax filers reporting over $100,000 in adjusted gross income (AGI) living in the city of Milwaukee declined form 15.6 to 9.6 percent. All told, the number of "over $100,000" tax filers in the city of Milwaukee declined by 18.7 percent between 1987-1997. Partially as a consequence of this "secession" of the affluent, real aggregate AGI declined in the city of Milwaukee by 3.7 percent between 1987-1997.

By contrast, real aggregate AGI rose by more than 46 percent in Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties. Over the past decade, each of these "exurban" counties experienced increases exceeding 60 percent in the number of "over $100,000" tax fliers. Waukesha county has seen a particularly rapid development of "pockets of affluence," in locations further and further removed from the city, such as Pewaukee, Delafield, Harland, and Oconomowoc. In 1997, although home to only 24 percent of the Milwaukee metro tax fliers, Waukesha contains 44 percent of the region's affluent (those in the $100,000 or above bracket), up from 35 percent in 1987. Waukesha county now is home to four times as many affluent tax filers as the entire city of Milwaukee.

The following comparison illustrates most vividly the extent to which metro Milwaukee's affluent have suburbanized. In 1997, just the two municipalities of Mequon and Brookfield, with a combined population around one-tenth that of the city of Milwaukee, contained twice as many "over $200,000 AGI" taxpayers as the city. By contrast, in 1987 Milwaukee was home to slightly more "over $100,000" tax filers than Mequon and Brookfield combined.

Robert Reich has labeled this pattern of sprawl the "secession" of the affluent, arguing that the exurban affluent manifest little civic, or community engagement. One way to measure such engagement is through philanthropic activity. 1997 tax data reveal that affluent residents of exurban communities, on average, contribute a lower percentage of their adjusted gross income to charity than do the affluent living in "closer-in" suburbs (Milwaukee county's "North Shore" communities) or in the city of Milwaukee.

Metropolitan Milwaukee has already become a highly polarized region, with growing exurban pockets of affluence more and more disconnected from an increasingly impoverished central city. Despite notable redevelopment efforts in the city of Milwaukee, and steadfast city efforts to hold the line on property taxes, the secession of the affluent has continued unabated over the past decade. The exodus damages the city's tax base and weakens its consumer markets, and hinders urban revitalization efforts. In the long run, without regional policies to control sprawl and pool metro fiscal resources, the secession of the affluent threatens to make such polarization a permanent part of the metropolitan landscape.

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