American Dream endures in one of country's most equal areas: Sheboygan, Wisconsin has one of the most even distributions of income in the US, but the middle class now fights to preserve its prosperity.
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.”