The National Costs of Crushing Workers in Wisconsin

So that’s what they mean by from welfare to work. First you go force the poorest Americans into the workforce, then you go after their bargaining power. Wisconsin has long been the eye of this storm.

“We have an environment in Wisconsin in which any poor family can climb out of the despair of poverty and pursue the American dream.”

So said former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, singing his own praises to the Heritage Foundation back in the early ’90s. By the time Bill Clinton ended the federal welfare program in ’96, Wisconsin’s W-2 program had already cut off AFDC entitlements and forced poor moms to work for benefits. That pushed thousands of poor women into the labor market. Average wages were around $7.00 an hour; homelessness rose, as did the number of children in foster care; Milwaukee’s black infant mortality rate went up 37%, and as soon as the 90’s bubble burst, unemployment and poverty swelled.

Thompson called his policy “compassionate”– and that’s the problem. It redefined what was morally acceptable to do to poor people, and with a whole lot of help from strategically funded media, the same reasoning wormed its way into the national mind. Democrat Bill Clinton boasted about “ending welfare as we know it,” and signed a brutal ’96 bill, casting it as doing RIGHT by the poor. Now that’s the same language being used to take down the unions.

Inside the dark Victorian mansion of the Bradley Foundation in benighted Milwaukee, there must be smiles all around. The same ideologically-driven outfit that paid for the task force that devised Thompson’s welfare plan is now backing Walker’s drive to criminalize collective bargaining.

In fact, as Wisconsin journalists reported with alarm two years ago, the CEO of the Bradley Foundation, Michael Grebe, was Scott Walker’s campaign chair and the head of his transition team. Bradley has long treated Wisconsin as its radical policy science lab. It must be itching to carve another notch in its community-destroying cane.

Paying for politicians is child’s play. To crib from the debt peddlers: pushing right wing policy is costly. Actually pacifying workers? Priceless.

LAURA FLANDERS is the host of GRITtv and editor of At The Tea Party, out now from OR Books.

Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media. lauraflanders.org

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