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An Honest Look at Poverty in the Heartland

A few weeks before the election, a roomful of Wisconsinites gathered to share some of the stories that are often left out of political campaigns. At a Racine gathering of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, visitors shared real-life stories about poverty in the state.

Solo Little John of Kenosha, Wisconsin was one of those who testified. He’s a fast food worker at Wendy’s and a leader of the Fight for $15 living wage campaign. “My voice represents the voices of the voiceless,” he said, “those who live in poverty and are directly impacted by low wages because we can’t form unions.”

“I only make $8.75 an hour,” he added. “You can probably imagine that day in day out, this is very hard for me, that it makes it a very difficult time for me to pay my bills, my light bills, my gas, the necessities.”

Some 1.2 million Wisconsin workers make under $15 an hour — that’s 44 percent of Wisconsin’s workforce.

In a story familiar across the country, many folks in Wisconsin struggle a lot harder than official poverty figures would have you believe. About 40 percent of people in Wisconsin are either poor or low-income — a total of about 2.3 million residents. This includes 51 percent of children, 41 percent of women, over a third of white people, and nearly two thirds of people of color in the state.

For immigrant Wisconsinites, the challenges can be even starker.

“Some are killed at the border, but we don’t see this,” said Maria Morales, a second generation Mexican immigrant. “It’s happening here in our own neighborhoods. Our own community members are being whisked away by the immigration department, by ICE, an agency that we do not need.”

She added, “We should abolish ICE. We don’t have to have an agency that’s out to destroy families… We’re tired of them tearing our families apart.”

Migrants aren’t the only Wisconsin residents feeling the impact of systemic racism.

Wisconsin has passed several voter suppression measures in recent years, including a photo ID law, that disproportionately affect voters of color. And of the 23,377 people imprisoned in the state, about 55 percent are people of color. Black residents are incarcerated at nearly 12 times the rate of white residents, the second highest disparity in the country.

The federal money spent in Wisconsin shows these skewed priorities.

Some $2.3 billion was spent on defense in the state in 2015, even while over a quarter of Wisconsin’s veteran population lives on under $35,000 a year. Around 415,000 people are uninsured, and nearly a quarter of the state’s census tracts are at-risk for water affordability.

The Trump tax overhaul will make these inequities worse. The richest 1 percent of Wisconsin residents are expected to receive 28 percent of the benefits of the new federal tax law. Their average tax cut in 2027 is expected to be $7,740, while the poorest 20 percent are expected to have to pay $180 more.

It’s not like we don’t have the money to do better for working people in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s contribution to the country’s endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond totals $73 billion since 2001. That same money could have created around 58,000 jobs a year in clean energy — every year for the last 17 years. It could have also placed every Wisconsin child in Head Start early childhood education programs, or covered health care for 1.6 million low-income adults each year since 2001.

After these elections, it’s time to chart a better future for the Badger State and others like it. Wisconsin’s lawmakers — and all of those in Congress — need to invest in good jobs and a green economy, not tax cuts for rich people and war.

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