Lost in the debate over tax reform and its impact on the middle class are the needs of the poor.
Consider that one in 10 Wisconsinites live in poverty, with the rate for children exceeding 15 percent, and the rate for African-American children at 44 percent. During the 2015-16 school year in Wisconsin, a staggering 18,592 children and teenagers were identified through the school district as homeless.
And while Congress debates the mortgage interest deduction, rent as a percentage of income is at a historic high. In fact, nationally, more than 8.3 million very low-income renters who do not receive any government housing assistance pay more than half of their income on rent.
These realities are felt across Wisconsin. Any “rural-urban divide” tends to collapse when viewed through the lens of poverty.
The evidence shows the poor continue to be forgotten, or dismissed outright. As we approach 2018, the challenges are as great as ever — including congressional plans to cut $1 trillion over 10 years from Medicaid, food stamps, energy assistance, affordable housing and other important anti-poverty programs.
But cruel data, slim budgets and the outrage they receive are all too familiar. We have barely moved beyond a now 30-year discussion over the role of government. Whether we put our trust in private-sector charitable giving, an activist government or both, we must at least be honest about just how many of our neighbors struggle and how any meaningful response must include all sectors of society.
The recent Foxconn wrangle is revealing. The debate centered on the need for decent paying jobs and the role of the state in promoting economic development. What our leaders failed to address was the interests of low-income Wisconsinites. In the end, the state offered $3 billion in incentives to locate a manufacturing facility in the Racine County village of Mount Pleasant. Backers point to an estimated 13,000 jobs that could follow. While high-tech jobs are promising, critics complained the state’s investment equaled $230,000 per job.
By comparison, the state’s successful Job and Business Development Program has seen its anemic funding decline from $250,000 annually in 1989 to just $200,600 in the most recently passed budget. The program is a unique economic development initiative that provides technical assistance to low-income entrepreneurs to start businesses.
The Job and Business Development Program is transformational. It has already started over 2,200 small businesses and created over 6,000 Wisconsin jobs — and it has helped low-income people become taxpaying business owners who utilize fewer public resources.
Yet funding for this program is not only less than in 1989. Incredibly, it is even lower than the state’s investment in a single Foxconn job. We cannot possibly be serious about the rising tide of economic development when there are such great disparities in public investments and priorities.
It is time our hearts and priorities change. The day-to-day challenges of living in poverty are truly profound. The poor struggle with low-paying jobs, unemployment, high rents, homelessness, food insecurity, skipping doctor visits or needed medicines, and the lack of sick leave and retirement plans. Poverty inflicts a near-constant stress that silently assaults one’s dignity, health and emotional well-being. The people of our state who struggle in these circumstances deserve our respect — and our boldest, most innovative efforts to find solutions.
As we prepare for the holidays, a time when our collective focus on those less fortunate is heightened, we must reclaim our proud Badger tradition of mutual aid and social responsibility. Even with the hyperpartisan divide that regrettably characterizes our state and national politics, we must find a way to align public priorities with our noblest values and character.
To do otherwise amounts to nothing less than cruel indifference — and fails to reflect the deeply caring and compassionate nature of the people of Wisconsin.