We could learn from neighborsKen Bierl lives in an old house that sits about 100 yards off the steep bluffs of the St. Croix just north of North Hudson.
By: Mike Nichols, Superior Telegram
Ken Bierl lives in an old house that sits about 100 yards off the steep bluffs of the St. Croix just north of North Hudson.
“Usually, somebody comes down here, they’re lost,” said Ken, standing out in his front yard with a view of the far edge of Wisconsin and, off to the not-so-distant west, Minnesota.
He knows both well. Seventy-one years of age now, he was born in the Gopher State and lived there for 35 of his years. He’s been in Wisconsin now for 33 and says, to be honest, he doesn’t see a whole heck of a lot of difference.
“I don’t think there really are any differences,” said Ken. “I mean, what the hell, you can throw a stone across the river here.”
It’s true that Wisconsin and its neighbors — not just Minnesota, but Iowa and Illinois — are siblings of a sort. (Michigan doesn’t really count as a neighbor because everybody knows the Upper Peninsula is actually part of Wisconsin. If there’s a Lions fan up there, I’d like to meet him — or her.)
Married couples, for instance, make up between 49 percent and 52 percent of all households in each of the four states. Exactly 28 percent of each state’s residents live alone. Each of the four states have about equal percentages of people working in the service industry and sales. From what I can tell, residents of all four places have about equal disdain for Jay Cutler.
But we do have our idiosyncrasies, many of which we inherited. We Wisconsinites have a lot more German blood in us than our neighbors. Minnesota, to this day, has twice as many Norwegians as Wisconsin; Iowa has more of the English and Irish. Almost 14 percent of Illinoisans were born in a foreign land — and, based on the amount of time it takes your average Illinois resident to get to work, I suspect a lot of them are still commuting from there.
I looked at American Community Survey results for all the states from 2007-2011. A lot has happened politically and legislatively since then, so things may look different down the road as reliable statistics for all the states become available. But Minnesota, over a long period of time, has clearly been doing something right. Minnesota has the highest percentage of its population in the labor force, a smaller percentage on food stamps, the highest per capita income and the lowest percentage of families in poverty.
Some of the Wisconsin stereotypes hold true, meanwhile. We have, by far, the highest percentage of our workforce in manufacturing in comparison to our neighbors and at least a slightly smaller percentage of people in finance and insurance and real estate.
Part of our long-term problem is education. Only 26 percent of Wisconsinites have a bachelor’s degree or higher versus 25 percent in Iowa, 31 percent in Illinois and 32 percent in Minnesota.
We’re siblings, it’s true, but the less ambitious and successful ones.
Not that we don’t have hope.
Just down the highway from Bierl’s place there is a big sign along the side of the road that says, “Future location of St. Croix Crossing,” the enormous new bridge that will cost between $600 million and $700 million and better link the two states. The new four-lane bridge, which will connect expressways on both sides of the river, is badly needed and will replace the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge.
“I have seen traffic on this side backed up three or four miles,” said Bierl.
During the week, more and more Wisconsinites commute across the river. In the summer, lots of Minnesotans head to their cottages on our side of the water. Maybe some of them will share their secrets — as well as their dollars — while they are over here.
Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is now a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column represents only his personal opinion. Contact him at MRNichols@