After my first year in office, I have learned there is one constant you can always count on: Scott Walker will always choose to divide us rather than unite us. He will pit Wisconsinite against Wisconsinite for his political gain instead of finding solutions that will solve the very real problems facing our state. In that way, he is a lot like Donald Trump. They both thrive on the politics of resentment as the rest of us suffer.
Walker’s bread-and-butter political tactic is the way he uses our most needy and vulnerable Wisconsinites as pawns to be sacrificed. I say this to explain why it is we’re getting a special session of the Legislature to talk about “welfare reform.” As with many Republican policies that are designed as political wedges, the legislation proposed by the governor and his Republican colleagues is not about improving the system but is instead about shrinking access. We have seen it done time and time again.
Republicans pass legislation that creates a lot of unnecessary red tape, which complicates or eliminates health care access or voting rights or a woman’s right to choose or union membership. Whether it’s dismantling the Affordable Care Act or approving a voter ID law, unnecessary regulations that force the closure of women’s health clinics, or Act 10, these laws are designed to “otherize” Wisconsinites in order to divide and conquer.
The bills proposed by the governor regarding public assistance include an extra dollop of the politics of resentment. If you ask most people why we have welfare policies, they would say it is to provide support to our fellow Wisconsinites who have fallen on hard times and to help get them out of poverty. Unfortunately, this is not at all what Walker has proposed. He aims to increase the number of hours recipients must work to receive food stamps, add photo IDs to FoodShare cards, require drug screening for residents of subsidized housing, require Medicaid recipients to pay child support, and enact other proposals that would restrict access rather than improve the welfare system.
None of these policies does anything to address poverty but they will shrink the number of people receiving assistance as individuals fail to clear the unnecessary hurdles placed before them. I know this because these ideas have been tried before and have failed miserably. In the 1990s, states were allowed to administer welfare as they saw fit, resulting in many Republican states passing laws similar to what Walker is proposing. Turns out, making it more difficult for people to receive assistance reduced the size of the welfare rolls but failed to address any of the underlying causes of chronic poverty. In other words, there were still people in desperate need of help but they could no longer access the assistance they needed.
Since the 1990s, we’ve seen significant economic growth and prosperity but only a small number of people have benefited. Income inequality is at its worst level since the 1920s with the top 1 percent claiming 82 percent of the increase in global wealth in 2017. Wages have been flat, infant and maternal mortality rates are on the rise, the opioid epidemic has ravaged families in Wisconsin and across the country, and for the first time in decades, U.S. life expectancy is on the decline. All of these metrics are intrinsically tied to the issue of poverty, so how can anyone say the “welfare reform” policies of the 1990s are successful? And if they have failed, why would we want to reproduce them here in Wisconsin?
The reality is that Walker’s welfare agenda should not be the priority if our goal is to eliminate poverty in Wisconsin. If we really want to solve this problem, we must address the underlying causes. The Walker administration grossly underinvests in things like education, infrastructure, child care, and health care, further exacerbating the great divide of opportunity that plagues so many Americans. We struggle to fund these important programs because our system is flooded with tax breaks for the wealthy and huge amounts of corporate welfare that provide almost no social or economic benefit for the state. Look no further than the $3 billion Foxconn deal, which may cost Wisconsin taxpayers $300,000 per job created. Or consider the manufacturing and agriculture tax credit, which cost Wisconsinites nearly $300 million in 2016 while the state lost 3,776 manufacturing jobs. These are huge transfers of wealth from middle and working-class families to the wealthy and well-connected.
So why aren’t we having a special session to reform corporate welfare? Part of the problem is that Walker and his Republican colleagues have equated being poor or working class with being morally inferior. They assume because somebody might need financial help that they must be a drug user or that they are cheating the system. They do this while completely ignoring the obvious abuses of power perpetrated by the wealthy and well-connected because to Walker, their virtue is assumed or, more cynically, purchased with campaign donations. This is ultimately how we end up in a world where Republicans are more concerned about someone using food stamps to purchase Twinkies than corporate executives using taxpayer funds acquired through the WEDC to purchase a sports car.
Ultimately, the responsibility falls to us. Will we hold Walker and his Republican colleagues accountable? Will our focus be on eliminating poverty or will we allow Walker to stir up feelings of resentment by pointing out a few bad apples? Will we demand better outcomes or fall into a dangerous conversation of who “deserves” help? Will we hold accountable those who exploit our political system or attack the working poor, our friends and neighbors, who often just need a helping hand?
I know where I sit. I hope you’ll join me.
Jimmy Anderson, of Fitchburg, is a Democratic member of the state Assembly.
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