This article rings pretty true. I like it here.
SHEBOYGAN, WIS. — In a lakefront town perhaps best known for its jaunty name and mouth-watering smoked bratwursts, there’s a new claim to fame: the most equal city in America.
According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the city and suburbs of Sheboygan, Wis., have the smallest gap between the rich and poor of any metropolitan area in the United States.
While Occupy Wall Street protesters rail against the runaway wealth of the upper crust, here the top 5 percent take home a much smaller proportion of the region’s wealth (16 percent) than in the U.S. at large (22 percent). To talk hard numbers, the top 20 percent of Sheboygan County makes a median income of $127,440, while the general workforce makes around $50,000.
In fact, the city’s Gini score — a measure of income inequality on a scale from 0 to 100, with bigger wealth gaps measuring higher on the scale — is 39, lying closer to Canada’s figure (32) than that of the U.S. as a whole (47).
Residents say the city reminds them of how America used to be, when there was no such thing as a “middle-class crisis.”
“I guess I am not real surprised,” wrote Helene Capizzi of the Sheboygan Public Library in an email to The Daily. “Sheboygan reminds me a lot of what it was like to grow up in Milwaukee in the ’60s. We’re always a decade or two behind the trends, but I think that’s what we like!”
Indeed, visitors to this modest, quaint town might be excused for thinking they stepped out of a time machine from the Eisenhower or Kennedy years. Here, polka bands still draw crowds in the summer, parents safely let their kids roam unsupervised and busy manufacturers keep pumping out goods proudly “made in the USA.”
While employment in the relatively well-paying manufacturing sector has plummeted nationally, now accounting for less than 10 percent of jobs, in Sheboygan, one-third of workers hold jobs with manufacturing firms that produce everything from plastic wares to shower heads for luxury spas.
Kohler, the household name in plumbing products, is headquartered in its namesake city outside Sheboygan and is the area’s biggest private employer. Other local companies include Vollrath (maker of stainless steel cooking ware) and Bemis (toilet-seat manufacturer), which employ hundreds of workers each.
Partly as a result of the area’s still-healthy industrial base, the unemployment and poverty rates are lower than in America as a whole.
“It’s pretty much a middle-class town,” said Myron Rabinowitz, 62, who owned a steel company in Sheboygan for decades. “There’s not an abundance of wealth. Most people are middle-class workers.”
This egalitarianism is visibly on display at the Sheboygan Yacht Club — an institution that in other places might be synonymous with wealth, exclusivity, even snobbery. Here, on the stunning western shore of Lake Michigan, the roughly 400 members of the yacht club come from all economic backgrounds.
“It’s a working man’s club,” said Rolf Simonson, 68, the “commodore” (i.e., president) of the club. “You can’t just buy your way in. Everyone who joins has to put in their 50 hours. You get all walks of life: You get the factory guy at Kohler, you get the president of some company. … When you’re working in the boatyard, you’re the same as everyone else.”
Simonson, a retired pediatrician, lives in the town of Kohler, which is seen as the relatively more affluent suburb of Sheboygan. Though a few luxury homes can cost a half-million dollars or more, an attractive house in Kohler can be had for $200,000 or less, according to current listings. (Many homes in Sheboygan proper cost roughly half that.)
Because of this lack of real-estate extremes, some residents struggled even to identify the bad parts of town. “We don’t have good and bad neighborhoods,” said Simonson. “You might find a bad house next to a nice one.”
The city retains vibrant local traditions, such as Friday Night Fish Frys at nearby taverns, and “Brat Days,” a festival held since 1953 in celebration of sausages. “People here really like tradition,” said Capizzi. “I think we are very community-minded. I always call it a big, small town.”
Like the small towns of yesteryear, Sheboygan also prides itself on being exceptionally free of violent crime. In 2009, the city was ranked as the second-safest in America out of 332 metropolitan areas. Outsiders covet the city’s relative safety. Jason Bull, 39, the principal of Sheboygan’s North High School, said he moved to the area from Milwaukee partly because he and his wife “wanted our kids to run loose and not have so many concerns.”
The public school system also remains a point of pride. With 10,000 students, the Sheboygan Area School District exceeded state averages in test scores for 10th-graders in multiple categories, including math.
“What makes the school good is that parents are invested, they care,” Bull said. “The saying ‘It takes a community to raise a child’ is embraced in Sheboygan more than in other places.”
Simonson boasted that the public schools were good enough so that “here, rich people don’t send their kids to some academy somewhere.”
The spirit of engagement extends to volunteering. Marilyn Montemayor, 70, has served as an alderman, a library board member and a teacher of French cooking at the art museum. Mary Eckardt, 61, a lifelong resident, said she volunteered at a women’s shelter and a retirement home.
Not that the town is without problems. In the late 1990s, Bull estimated, the percentage of students on free or reduced lunches was in the “high teens, low 20s.” Now, Bull said that figure was 37 percent.
“We have seen an increase in transient-type families coming to the school,” he said. “The economy, the world, America, it all affects Sheboygan.”
Signs of economic distress are also apparent at the public library, a bustling three-story building downtown. One display covers the theme, “Thrifty Living,” and showcases books such as “Two Incomes and Still Broke?” and “Save Now or Die Trying.”
And the beer-loving city has lately been in the grip of a booze-fueled political scandal. Mayor Bob Ryan, an alcoholic who has lapsed repeatedly, faces a possible recall election after going on a three-day bender this summer that ended in a bar fight. Citizens have gathered more than 4,000 signatures in support of recalling Ryan, despite widespread sympathy for his vice. “You’d be surprised how many people think it’s no big deal because everyone gets drunk,” said Capizzi.
But even as Sheboygan faces uncertain times, locals are proud that their fortunes generally rise and fall in tandem. Montemayor noted that while the economy was tough, “most people have taken the ride down together.”
This is perhaps one reason why inequality has come to the fore: Many Occupy Wall Street protesters wish the country could return to more egalitarian times — not only in terms of economics, but also in terms of political influence.
Katherine Curtis, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Daily that “when we see a community with less inequality, what that means is that there’s less likelihood of polarization. We might have differing views, but the distribution of power is not so extreme.”
That seems to be how the residents of Sheboygan like it.
“We may not fly with the eagles at the best of times,” Simonson mused, gazing out at the harbor, “but we don’t go down when times are bad.”