American Dream endures in one of country’s most equal places
Comparing the Divide: Middlesbrough, England and Sheboygan, Wis. both built thriving middle classes over decades of successful manufacturing. In the United Kingdom, income inequality is climbing and threatens to return places like Middlesbrough to an Dickensian age of “haves” and “have nots.” Sheboygan, with an income inequality level slightly higher than England’s, is proving resilient to a similar trend of middle class erosion across the United States.
Read about Middlesbrough, England, here.
SHEBOYGAN, Wisconsin Lake Michigan was wide and blue and a little menacing in the distance as a hard wind chopped at the lake off the breakwater near the mouth of the Sheboygan River.
But inside the harbor, where wind and waves were blunted by land, Kristopher Panick, a laid off construction worker, found his ice fishing spot. He knelt over a hole he’d bored through six inches of ice, dropped a line baited with a silver minnow, stood and then cracked open a freezing beer.
Winter is quiet for roofers and siders in Sheboygan, and this winter has been quieter than most. Panick, 35, wearing glasses and a couple layers of hooded sweatshirts, has no health insurance and lives paycheck to paycheck. He draws on unemployment when he must.
“Lately it’s been hard to come by work,” he said. “I’ve never seen it so slow.”
Panick’s small refuge, a patch of ice atop the dark, frigid water of a Great Lake, is a bit like Sheboygan itself. The town of 50,000 is a spot of relative economic calm and security amid a cold, forbidding economic landscape in America, where the income gap is growing and the middle class is shrinking. Just halfway up the west coast of Lake Michigan, the dream of a prosperous and growing American middle class has somehow sur Burberry Outlet vived.
In 2010, Sheboygan County had the most even distribution of wealth for a metropolitan area in the United States, according to a formula for income inequality developed by Italian economist Corrado Gini. Sheboygan County, it turns out, is on par internationally with European countries like the United Kingdom. And in this part of GlobalPost’s ongoing series, The Great Divide, we set out to compare Sheboygan with Middlesbrough, an English industrial town on the North Sea about an hour south of Newcastle. They share an industrial past, a hardworking people and an anxious middle class hanging on even as the ground shifts beneath it.
Sheboygan has a few advantages in preserving its ideal self as a Midwestern middle class archetype. It’s small. It also has a booming food industry that economists say is largely resistant to recession. And Sheboygan’s middle class depends on at least one other force: The private business empires that dominate the regional economy.
Names like Kohler, Vollrath, Stayer, Gentine, Sartori, Bemis and Brotz carry weight in Sheboygan County, because those families built companies that have provided jobs and sustained the towns of Plymouth, Sheboygan Falls and Sheboygan. These businesses are all private, often run by the descendants of founders.
The families who founded Kohler Company, Sargento Foods and Johnsonville Sausage don’t have to answer to shareholders or pay dividends. They build golf courses and marinas, art museums and shopping centers and they spend money on their businesses.
“It’s these strong, family owned businesses that really can look beyond quarter to quarter, that really look down the road,” said Dave Sachse, a native of Sheboygan and serial industrialist who now owns a company called Nutrients, Inc., which makes vinegar. “Most of these guys who ran those places were very benevolent to the community.”
Corrado Gini figured out a way to measure income distribution across a population so that a score of zero indicates perfect income equality and a score of one means perfect inequality. metro areas in 2010. Four of the ten most equal cities in the United States by this Burberry Outlet measure are in Wisconsin, including Appleton, Wausau and Janesville.
The question, of course, is how long this will last. Company towns run by family companies have suffered across the Midwest for decades. Views within a family shift, or ownership changes hands. is still almost twice as high as the national average in Sweden. Census Bureau.
Midwestern states were among the earliest and most enthusiastic participants in the second industrial revolution. From Detroit to Milwaukee to Mankato, people built foundries and steel mills and factories. They built the crucial machines of the 20th century cars, cameras, backhoes, pacemakers, tra Burberry Outlet ctors, radios, motorcycles, washing machines and airplanes. The auto industry in Detroit led the way, but its supply chain reached into towns across the region, including Sheboygan. And the Midwest was the nation’s breadbasket too. It had the best farmland on the continent and giant food companies like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and General Mills.
Workers could expect to graduate from high school, get a job at a factory, raise a family, send their kids to a Big Ten university and retire comfortably. The Midwest was the “place that created the American mass middle class,” wrote Lou Glazer, president of the economic and public policy group Michigan Future. “Largely because of high paid, unionized factory jobs this was the place where if you worked hard you were most likely to realize the American Dream.”
The future of human consumption is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: $30 per hour on the assembly line will be tough to come by. What workers expected and received in the Midwest after World War II which Glazer refers to as the “American Dream” looks now like a highly specific moment in human history, one that doesn’t translate to the future.
The Sheboygan River winds its way across the level land to the big lake, and the first residents of the city settled on its banks in the 1830s. The first wave of German immigrants came in the 1840s, bringing with them an enduring reputation for thrift, industry and sausage making. Sawmills, flour mills and cheese factories sprang up across the region. The city’s south pier eventually came to serve as a dock where large lake boats unloaded coal onto smaller boats that could make their way to other towns further inland by navigating the little rivers that empty into the lake. (It is now a resort and hotel.)
The Kohler Company was founded in 1873 by an Austrian immigrant named John Michael Kohler, when he and a partner bought a foundry that made field plows and feed cutters for farmers.
Kohler introduced enameled steel bathtubs to American consumers in the 1880s. Now the company sells all kinds of bathroom fixtures and motors and owns resorts and golf courses in Wisconsin and Scotland. The firm is one of the largest privately held companies in America and employs about a tenth of metro Sheboygan’s workforce.
The front office at Kohler looks like an administrative building at an Ivy League college. There’s a clock tower and a green lawn out front. Behind that is a complex of factories and parking lots stretching nearly a mile to the east. Opposite the office, on the other side of the street, stands the American Club, where bellhops in red coats and black bowler hats carry bags for tourists from Chicago. The club was built in 1918 as a dormitory for immigrant workers. Now it is an elaborate resort where people stay when they come to Sheboygan to play golf. A wood fire burned in a waiting room and women at the front desk were handing Burberry Outlet out champagne on a Saturday in January. The company’s tagline is “gracious living.”
“I don’t work for the money,” says Herbert Vollrath Kohler Jr., president of the company, in a promotional video at the Kohler Design Center. “I work to advance living environments, if you will, and I get very excited about that, whether it’s a golf course, whether it’s the interior of a house, whatever.”
The Kohlers have built their own little “living environment” around Sheboygan, including the American Club, an art center downtown adjoining the founder’s original home, and some famous golf courses. Whistling Straits, a traditional links course among man made dunes next to the lake north of Sheboygan, has twice hosted the PGA Championship.
THEY CALL THEMSELVES ‘CHEESEHEADS’
Over in Plymouth, Mayor Don Pohlman was bragging about his town and one of its companies, Sargento Cheese. It was Friday night at City Club, a bar in the middle of town. Waitresses were serving fried perch and brandy old fashioneds garnished with olives. Pohlman noted his town’s work ethic, its high wages and its output of cheese.
Sargento, founded in 1953, cuts and packages cheese. If you live in America and shop for groceries, you’ve probably seen the name. The business generated a billion dollars in revenue in 2011.
“You don’t go there and goof off. You go there and work!” said the mayor. “There are no $20,000 a year jobs at these cheese factories, they don’t exist.”
As sure as the sideburns that stretch down below his ears, Pohlman is confident in the family held businesses that employ most of the citizens of his town. He tells stories about leaders from Sargento and Sartori remembering the birthday of a line employee, or showing up to a worker’s funeral. The companies pay well and they’re loyal, he said. They might not be if they weren’t owned by local families.