The economic decline and elevated infant mortality rate in the 53210 ZIP code
Editorʼs Note: This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It is being reprinted as part of a partnership between the Community Journal and Journal Sentinel to help address a critical issue in our community.
By John Schmid – Courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Reprinted November 13, 2011
he southern Chinese city of Guangzhou has mastered many of the trades Milwaukee championed in the last century: machinery, motors, metalworking. Guangzhou’s boom has coincided with the sunset of manufacturing in Milwaukee, which in mere decades lost one of the nation’s densest concentrations of mass production.
The two cities crisscross in another way: Babies in China’s industrial heartland now have a far better chance of reaching their first birthday.
In Milwaukee, one baby under the age of 12 months dies for every 95 who live, making it one of America’s most fatal cities for infants. A generation ago, Milwaukee was one of the safest.
Among registered residents of Guangzhou, one baby dies for every 210 who live. The Chinese data, vetted by the World Bank and United Nations, often miss migrant workers in factories, but their infant survival rates are improving markedly as well.
Infant survival and economic competitiveness tend to move on the same communities and nations with rising wealth and stability – just as young life is threatened by economic crisis and upheaval.
The issue is especially acute in Milwaukee, a once-muscular manufacturing city where the infant mortality rate in some neighborhoods now rivals that of Third World nations. As civic leaders embark on just-announced efforts to eliminate racial disparities and cut deaths to historic lows, the central city fallout from 30 years of industrial downsizing underscores the biggest challenge in turning the tide.
“Wealth leaves the city and infant mortality rates rise,” said Thomas LaVeist, a professor of public health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
Within the city, the most fatal of all districts is an eerily quiet ZIP code called 53210. About four miles from downtown and the lakefront, 53210 idles on the city’s north side.
In its heart is an economic vacuum. Rows of factory buildings stretch for miles – an industrial graveyard that creates a canyon of concrete and barbed wire. The sheer size and number of empty factories testify to the highdecibel, high-employment economy that flourished when shifts ran around the clock, between World War II and the 1980s, before global competition increased dramatically.
The strip was home to global manufacturing leaders such as A.O. Smith Corp., which welded the undercarriages for nearly every American-made passenger car, and Briggs & Stratton Corp., which built the small engines powering virtually every lawn mower. These days, the signs on the buildings are different. “Guard Dogs on Duty,” is all that’s posted on one. “This building is illegally occupied or unfit for human habitation,” is stapled to the door of another. “We buy junk cars” is hand-lettered on the fence of a sleepy gravel lot.
Trees grow through cracks in the pavement. The surviving companies no longer offer entry-level factory jobs, the kind that once offered a first step into the middle class. Master Lock Co., the last remaining big company in 53210, has gone from 1, 300 to 380 employees at its flagship plant. But the maker of padlocks requires education and technical skills to operate its automated production lines. Manually intensive unskilled work is carried out at plants in Mexico and China.
In 53210, one baby dies for every 59 who make it. Research underlines how economic change affects infant mortality.
“It’s not just a black thing,” said Franklin Goza, a sociology professor who specializes in population demographics at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “If you are a poor white person, your baby is more than twice as likely to die during its first year of life than it would be if it was a wealthy baby.”
Goza studied all the urban census tracts in Ohio, another Midwestern manufacturing state. Using four decades of data, Goza was struck by an increase over time in the number of white babies who die in poor census tracts, calling it a “strong and consistent inverse association.” A Duke University study in 2008 found increased odds of preterm birth for non-Hispanic white women in tracts “with high unemployment, low education, poor housing, low proportion of managerial or professional occupation, and high poverty.” In Milwaukee and the U.S., infant mortality is most acute in African American communities.
Even black mothers in professional occupations have higher infant mortality rates than poor whites. Researchers who have looked at the internal biological triggers of premature birth, such as genes and chemistry, argue stress is often a key factor in prematurity.
So what happens outside the womb – an eviction notice; the anxiety of an unsafe environment; struggling without a job – can affect what happens inside it.
In 1970, the city’s black poverty rate was 22% lower than the U.S. black average; today, Milwaukee’s black poverty rate is 49% higher than the national rate. In 1970, the city’s median family income for African Americans was 19% higher than the U.S. median income for black families. Today, it’s 30% lower.
During that time frame, the overall rates of poverty and unemployment in 53210 tripled. When the housing sector collapsed under the weight of subprime debt, the area felt the impact with particular force.
“Nearly every block in the ZIP code has problem properties reaching the sheriff sale stage,” according to a study of 53210 by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Infant mortality is the ultimate misery index. Frequent infant deaths nearly always coincide with lower life spans, hypertension, high blood pressure, respiratory issues and diabetes.
“The infants are like the canary,” said Geoffrey Swain, medical director of the Milwaukee Health Department and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. “They are the most vulnerable. They are the first to drop off when conditions are bad.” The U.S. infant mortality rate is 7 deaths per 1, 000 live births – far outpacing 3 in post-unification Germany and 2 in Japan.
Milwaukee’s overall rate was 11.9 in 2006 and has since improved to 10.4, but it remains the nation’s seventh worst big city. The black rate stands at 14.1. In 53210, the overall rate is 17.
By 1981 in Wisconsin – when four of every five African-Americans lived in Milwaukee – the state had the third best black rate of infant survival in the nation. White mortality rates in Milwaukee were falling as well and better than the national average.
The city sent a Department of Health nurse to visit every mother for every birth. Today, Swain said, city nurses visit less than a tenth of all at-risk mothers in just the city’s worst ZIP codes. Now, the area’s economic landscape is changing.
A.O. Smith exited the auto business in the 1990s and reinvented itself as a water-technology company. It sold the plant in 1997 to Tower Automotive Inc., which filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and closed the Milwaukee factories. The city is tearing down the old factories and hopes to create an industrial park. Next door was the sprawling Koehring Machine Co., which employed over 1, 000; today Koehring is a scrap metal yard.
Farther south was a campus of six factories that belonged to Briggs & Stratton, which called itself the world’s largest maker of small air-cooled engines. Briggs employed more than 700 factory workers in the factories – not including the on-site headquarters of its electrical products division. Today the buildings are vacant.
The Journal Sentinel canvassed 60 of the old industrial properties in the stretch that slices through 53210. Some made shoes, brewing equipment, potato chips, embroidered vestments for priests. But the biggest among them stamped, forged, welded, plated and fabricated metal.
Nine of the 60 have been torn down and exist as empty lots. Another 18, including A.O. Smith and Briggs, are empty or partially
used as storage space.
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