When House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled his repackaged conservative ideas this week about reducing and refocusing government anti=poverty programs, there was one element missing: What about low-income people in Ryan's own Wisconsin district?
At TalkPoverty.org, Greg Kaufman tells a story that national mainstream media isn't about the disconnect between the right-wing nostrums Ryan is peddling and what the low-income people in Ryan's district actually need.
Kaufman focuses on Racine, Wis., a Lake Michigan coastal town on the eastern end of Ryan's district, and Janesville, Wis., where Ryan lives.
In Racine, "more than 21 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty, and it cuts across demographics—including 22 percent of whites, 23 percent of African-Americans, and 28 percent of Hispanics." Unemployment in Racine earlier this year was at 7.2 percent and rising, compared to a national average below 5 percent.
Racine is typical of factory towns throughout the Midwest. It was once a place where a high school graduate could easily get a unionized factory job with decent wages and benefits. But that was before manufacturers moved their factories either out of the country altogether or to anti-union states in the South where wages had been suppressed and workers were not empowered to fight for benefits.
In Racine, workers know Ryan as the champion of corporations that outsource jobs and a conservative movement that opposes empowering workers through unions. Hey also heard Ryan when he again said, at his news conference in Washington this week, that he was opposed to a federal increase in the minimum wage.
“Congressman Ryan can’t have it both ways,” Kaufman quotes Democratic State Representative Cory Mason as saying. “He can’t be the guy for the trade deals that move the middle class jobs away and be the guy who’s opposed to raising the minimum wage, and then say that we need to take safety net programs away.”
As Kelly Gallagher, a community organizer with Racine’s Community for Change, told Kaufman, “How do you take away half of our manufacturing jobs and then say poverty is some moral failing?”
The same message can be heard in Janesville – if Ryan would walk from the comfortable neighborhood he lives in to the more ramshackle part of town where his constituents bear the brunt of his policies. Ryan's "A Better Way" poverty agenda is replete with talk of encouraging people to work – in fact, forcing people to work in most cases in order to receive meager economic support. But one of the residents that Kaufman spoke to recalled that when a group of residents held signs at a Labor Day parade Ryan was in that said, "We Need Jobs in Janesville," Ryan walked away.
“If Paul Ryan wants to talk about poverty, he doesn’t have to go more than a mile from his house to talk with people who can tell him specifically how they found themselves living in their car, or without a job,” Gallagher said.
The same goes for the media reporters and pundits who have elevated Ryan to being the intellect of House Republicans and who are buying his effort to wrap the Republican Party in "compassionate conservatism" packaging. No one should be buying what Paul Ryan is saying about what makes poor people poor, what either motivates them or discourages them from work, and what would get them out of poverty. It turns out, if you actually talk to economically struggling people, they are pretty wise about what would allow them to rise out of poverty – and who is standing in the way.