Seeking Solutions For Troubled Cities

As a "social science historian", Marc Levine
analyzes the impact of economic development
efforts. His work has captured the attention
of politicians, economists and the media.

Perhaps no other UWM researcher is in the public eye as consistently as Marc Levine. While he's still a far cry from being a household name, Levine is frequently quoted in front-page news stories and editorials on subjects as wide-ranging as the economic impact of tourism, employment trends, and light-rail transit.

Levine, an associate professor of history and urban studies, isn't surprised that his research makes news. "I don't go out of my way to be controversial," he claims. "But I clearly disagree with the ways economic development is practiced in American cities."

That's putting it mildly. Levine told the Atlantic Monthly that the economic impact of tourism is over-rated. The Baltimore Sun quoted him as saying that the results of that city's much-heralded economic redevelopment efforts didn't add up. In Milwaukee, Levine's 1994 report on the fact that downtown redevelopment efforts have not benefitted minorities was widely reported in aritcles and editorials in The Milwaukee Journal. He received a similar response to another study that gave Milwaukee the dubious claim of being "one of the low-wage capitals of the U.S." Clearly, Levine doesn't give civic boosters much to cheer about.

"The research we produce at the UWM Center for Economic Development (of which Levine is director) isn't always good news," Levine says. Stirring controversy is unavoidable "when you're working in areas that have contemporary policy significance." He understands that "if you're a (politician), and a report says that Milwaukee is a low-wage center or downtown redevelopment hasn't provided many jobs for the African-American community, you're going to react negatively to that."

Politicians may not like everything Levine says, but they can't argue with the facts. "Center studies are carefully researched," he says. Levine knows that his reports will come under close scrutiny, and others will test his results. So far, other researchers who examine the same data invariably concur with Levine's conclusions.

His research methods may be those of a detached academic, but Levine insists that he is also engage - that is, he demonstrates concern for the communities he researches and lives in. That's evident in the many civic and charitable organizations he supports. Im Milwaukee, Levine has worked with or is currently involved with such organizations as the New Hope Project (a welfare reform group), the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee and the Institute for Wisconsin's Future. Professionally, he has directed conferences on: U.S.-Canada relations; education, job training and community revitalization; and universities, community schools and economic development.

In addition to serving as director of the UWM Urban Studies Program, a position he will relinquish this fall, Levine is director of the UWM Center for Economic Development.

Levine is taking his first sabbatical in 11 years. He is working on two books; the first is a revised and expanded French language edition of The Reconquest of Montreal: Language Policy and Social Change in a Bilingual City (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). The new book is titled La reconquete de Montreal: La politique linguistique et la transformation d'une ville. It will be published by VLB Editeur, Montreal, in 1996. The other book project will focus on the politics of economic redevelopment in Baltimore. A portion of Levine's sabbatical year also will be spent researching in Montreal at the prestigious Institut national de la recherche scientifique-urbenisation of the Universite du Quebec. He will explore the politics of culture and nationalism in modern-day Quebec, particularly focusing on how immigrants are integrated into a French-speaking society.

Although Levine is often asked about his background, he is neither French nor Canadian. In fact, the New York native had never visited Canada before he and his wife honeymooned there. "My initial interest in Canada was strictly academic," Levine, 44, explains. Levine made comparative studies between the U.S. and Canadian educational and economic systems while studying history at the University of Pennsylvania. Gradually, Levine became more and more fascinated with Canadian history and culture, focusing particularly on Quebec.

However, the French language proved to be an initial obstacle for Levine, a self-confessed "indifferent French student in high school." So he enrolled in a French immersion course for adults. "If only my former high school French teachers could see me now," notes Levine wryly. He writes books and articles in French, and gives lectures in that language, too. His moment of truth came when Levine gave a keynote address, in French, at a conference of the Conseil de la lange francaise, the government body responsible for protecting the French language in Quebec. "Yes, I was nervous beforehand," he admits, quickly adding that the speech was received quite well.

Whether examining the Canadian or U.S. ecomomic system, Levine is interested in the nature of public policy. Areas of special interest include group conflict, group cohesion, and public policy and group relations. His mission is to "use history as a natural laboratory for the analysis of public policy". One of his main research questions is, how much government so we need in a free-market economy?

More than a decade ago, Levine's interest in public policy was sparked by his role as special legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy. That experience helped lay the foundation for the creation of UWM's Center for Economic Development. Six years after arriving at UWM in 1984, Levine became the founding director of a federally funded center at UWM that would conduct research on economic development issues. The research, combined with other resources, would help community organizations create jobs - especially jobs for inner city residents.

A recent national report about shrinking wages for most U.S. workers made headlines across the country, and echoed the news made a year earlier by one of Levine's most publicized studies.

In November 1994, Levine reported the startling discovery that Milwaukee, once a leader in maintaining wage levels, had reversed itself. In the report, Levine wrote that "Milwaukee is fast becoming one of the low-wage capitals of the U.S., threatening the high quality of life that is part of the city's heritage." Of all the metropolitan areas that Levine's research team studied, Milwuakee had the highest growth in low-wage jobs and the biggest plunge in jobs offering mid-range wages between 1970 and 1990.

"I didn't set out to target Milwaukee," says Levine, somewhat defensively. "The report evolved from a scholarly project on changing North American labor markets." However, the report sent shock waves through the community, and was widely commented on in the local news. Levine, too, was shocked. "It stunned me to see low-wage growth in Milwaukee was worse than Detroit, and we were becoming more like low-wage centers such as Charlotte, N.C."

The other 11 cities in Levine's study were a geographically diverse mix, encompassing Northern industrial centers (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago and Detroit), growing Southern cities (Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas), and global-oriented or high-tech cities (Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Seattle).

The report included several recommendations for stopping the trend toward low-wage jobs. Among them were expanding the federal earned-income tax credit, increasing the minimum wage, encouraging unionization, increasing labor-protecting provisions in international trade agreements, and increasing local government aid for high-wage industries (such as manufacturing) rather than low-wage fields (such as tourism).

Levine notes proudly that progress has been made in several of these areas. Currently, there's a "living wage" bill before the Milwaukee Common Council that would require companies that do business with the city to pay workers a minimum of $7.70 an hour. "Personally, I think that figure is a little low," says Levine, who believes that a minumum income of $20,000-$22,000 is necessary to keep a family of four out of poverty. "But it's a starting point."

Levine also says that it's time to stop the "union-bashing rhetoric that has been part of the political landscape for 15 years." He points to cities such as Montreal and Toronto, where strong unionization has preserved middle-class jobs. While he concedes that Milwaukee "is not going back to the 1950s, when 40-50% of the labor force was employed in manufacturing," Milwaukee still has a higher proportion of manufacturing jobs (20-22%) than many other cities. That can be the foundation for expanding unionization to other sectors of the marketplace, such as service industries. "We need to concentrate on the service sectors, because that's where the growth of jobs is going to be," he says.

Levine is convinced that it is going to take a multi-pronged approach, encompassing several of these job-saving strategies, for the wage situation to improve. "My research (comparing Canada and the U.S.) shows that a cluster of policies designed to change labor market institutions can make a difference."

But what if Milwaukee can't reverse the slide toward low-wage jobs? Levine warns of dire consequences for the city, including increased poverty and the resulting burden on social services, a wider gap between rich and poor residents, and a deterioration of public services as the tax base shrinks. "Potentially, it could cause an unstoppable downward spiral as the overall quality of life begins to suffer," Levine says.

But all is not doom and gloom in Milwaukee's economic forecast. Indeed, Levine points out that Milwaukee's history as a traditional bastion of middle-wage jobs may be its salvation. "Though it's a rust-belt city in some economic difficulty, over-all indicators look pretty good," he says The picture looks particulary bright when one includes the outlying suburbs, such as Waukesha and Ozaukee counties, which are experiencing rapid growth.

A related area of Levine's research has assessed the impact of popular downtown redevelopment efforts such as convention centers, stadiums and light-rail transit. Levine gives such projects a mixed review. Light rail, for example, can have a favorable impact on drawing development efforts to a targeted area. But Levine warns against taking a "Field of Dreams" approach to light rail, "build it, and developers will come." Instead, a light-rail project "needs to be accompanied by a whole range of other public policies to guarantee its effectiveness."

In 1992, Levine received joint funding from UWM, the City of Milwaukee and the federal government to launch a Milwaukee light-rail feasibility study. His study concluded that the proposed $417 million, 18-mile light-rail transit system would generate 6,000 metro-area jobs. The report painted a positive picture of clean, quick transportation that would whisk city residents to suburban jobs, spur development around the rail stations and provide opportunities for minority-owned construction companies.

Three years later, the light-rail project remains on hold as discussion continues.

Levine is considerably less enthusiastic about convention centers and stadiums. Milwaukee is about to launch a major addition to its convention center this year, and a proposed new stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team is one of the city's most controversial issues. Levine claims that such civic renewal efforts "have a mixed record as engines of economic development. There's no evidence that cities which have them do better than cities that don't."

Levine cites Baltimore as a city that invested heavily in both a convention center and a new stadium for its Baltimore Orioles baseball team. Levine grew up in Baltimore and has researched the city's fortunes for years. Though Baltimore "is the most heralded case of an older industrial city trying to turn itself around by revitalizing its downtown tourism industry," Levine notes some cracks in the city's polished new image. He says that the poverty rate is higher than before the redevelopment efforts were launched, the social infrastructure continues to decline, and the city's tax base has not dramatically improved. While such developments may boost the number of low-wage service jobs in the area, Levine finds no evidence of the proclaimed "trickle-down effect" that benefits residents on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

In 1990, a local Baltimore magazine writer credited Levine with reigniting the dispute that had simmered ever since the referendum (funding redevelopment projects) - was Baltimore neglecting its neighborhoods and poor residents to concentrate on glittering brick-and-mortar development?" She referred to Levine's article about Baltimore's redevelopment in the Journal of Urban Affairs as a "devastating critique of the Baltimore renaissance." Several years after his comments were published, Levine was asked to be an advisor to the current Baltimore mayor. Furthermore, his critique has been turned into a book which he expects to complete in early 1996.

As Levine alternates his attention between applied research and book writing, the UWM Center for Economic Development will begin several new research initiatives. In its five years of existence, the Center has provided about 40 UWM students with opportunities to work on these public policy projects. "We've been successful in getting a substantial number of students involved," Levine notes with some pride. He says that the Center's work complements a number of related UWM courses, providing students with real-world experiences that enhance learning. For instance, Levine teaches an urban studies "Community Development Workshop" course that discusses issues which apply directly to UWM Center for Economic Development projects.

Levine plans to contunue his involvement in such projects during his sabbatical, albeit at a distance. Whether he'll be in or out of the news during his time away from campus remains to be seen.