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Battleground State: Wisconsin, Welfare and the Poor

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Wisconsin Senator Gwen Moore joins us to discuss welfare and the poor. Moore is currently running for Congress in Milwaukee where, she says, the gap in socio-economic status between White and Black citizens is among the highest in the nation.[includes transcript]

As we continue our Exception to the Rulers book and media tour swing through Wisconsin, which is a major battleground state in the upcoming presidential election. This weekend, we were in Madison, celebrating community radio station WORT and community TV WYOU, we were also in Stevens Point where we went to the Midwest Renewable Energy Conference and yesterday we arrived in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is a state, which has two competing traditions. It is the home state of Sen. Joe McCarthy who led the communist witchhunts of the 1950s and it is also the home of the famous progressive political leader Fighting Bob La Follette, who waged perhaps the most successful progressive presidential campaign in history. In 1924, he won almost 5 million votes as he pledged to “break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people”

This city that we are broadcasting from today also has a very rich tradition. Milwaukee had 12 socialist mayors. The last of them, Frank Zeidler, will join us later on the program. He was mayor from 1948-1960 and was reelected twice during the McCarthy era. He was also the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1976.

Milwaukee also is a significant city in the struggle for worker’s rights in this country. In the late 1800s, the Federation of Organized Trades and labor Unions organized a movement to win an 8 hour work day. The campaign would climax on May 1, 1886. After that day, all workers not yet on the 8-hour system were to cease work in a nationwide strike until their employers met the demand.

There were over 1600 mass demonstrations across the country and on May 3, 1886 a demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned bloody when police shot four workers to death. The next day a bomb was hurled into police ranks killing several officers and wounding many more in what became known as the haymarket massacre. The next day in Milwaukee, striking steelworkers, marching toward a mill in the Bay View section of the city, were intercepted by a squad of militia, who fired point blank into the strikers, killing seven.

In the 1968, Milwaukee was the site of the second major raid on a draft board during the Vietnam War. Following the Catonsville 9 action in May of 1968 led by Dan and Phil Berrigan, the Milwaukee 14 carried out a similar raid on a draft board in September of 68. This is also the home city of Fr. James Groppi, who led many of Milwaukees civil rights marches and fought for the rights of working people in the city.

But despite the rich progressive tradition in this city, Milwaukee is held up by the Bush administration as an example, particularly in the areas of school choice and so-called welfare reform. President Bush came here to Milwaukee to launch his Faith-based initiatives program. Many of the policies of former Republican Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson have been used as a national model. Thompson, of course, is now Bush’s Health and Human Services Secretary. Milwaukee is also one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. And, according to our first guest, it is a city where the gap in socio-economic status between White and Black citizens is among the highest in the nation.

  • Sen. Gwen Moore, Wisconsin State Senator from Milwaukee. She is currently running for the US Congress.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now by Wisconsin State Senator Gwen Moore. She is currently running for the U.S. Congress. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SEN. GWEN MOORE: And we welcome you to the Milwaukee media market.

AMY GOODMAN: It is very good to be with you. Can you describe this state for us and especially Milwaukee in terms of various breakdowns of the population?

SEN. GWEN MOORE: Thank you so much for asking this. First of all, Milwaukee is the only city of the first class in the entire state. That is, a city with more than 500,000 people as residents. It is also a place where we have the youngest African American population per capita in the United States. So, there is a tremendous unemployment and underemployment that is tied to the — to youth of our city and lacking in educational opportunity here in the state. We have a bifurcated educational system. We’ve experimented with the school voucher program, and literally, because of divestment in education, it has literally created a heartbreaking warfare between the public school system and private schooling in Milwaukee. And to the loss of manufacturing jobs, the crisis of providing health care and it’s a recipe for a disaster. We have huge gaps in well being between our minority community and our majority community, but even those folks in the majority community are suffering and hit hard by the rust belt economy of our state.

AMY GOODMAN: Mm-hmm. Can you talk about these policies that have emanated from Wisconsin that have become national, with the ascendancy of Tommy Thompson, who was the governor here, and one of the top officials in the Bush administration that have to do with welfare to work and that have to do with school choice.

SEN. GWEN MOORE: Well, thank you for asking that as well. These policies were put into place as part of the presidential politics of 1996, the welfare reform in particular.

AMY GOODMAN: This was under President Clinton.

SEN. GWEN MOORE: Under President Clinton. Those welfare policies meant that we did end welfare as we know it, without having done the work that we need to build a stronger economy. We had absolutely no plan in this state, particularly in Milwaukee, for creating jobs, or providing the employment training. As a matter of fact, the day we started welfare reform 10,000 women, in this city alone, were kicked out of technical college in order to fulfill the welfare-to-work requirements. 14,000 women statewide were kicked out of school. We have teenage moms, 14, 15, 16 years old that were kicked out of school in order to go to work. It was a very ill-thought out plan. We have one of the most onerous welfare programs in the country that doesn’t allow education and training and that provides no lucrative jobs. Many women find themselves in a great lurch under this program. It is Frankenstein’s laboratory for welfare reforms, as described by New York papers and Village Voices: Frankenstein’s laboratory for welfare reform. School choice: Once again, it sounded like a really great idea. But because of the divestment in education, the state backed away from two thirds funding of schools. We took $450 million out of education and we literally have 80% of the kids in the Milwaukee public school system eligible for free or reduced lunch. But we are only concerning — we find ourselves in a veritable war between the voucher schools and public schools over resources. While, of course, we’re spending $200 billion dollars in a war on Iraq, there are very, very many other onerous implications for our state that need a national solution.

AMY GOODMAN:This is the home of The Bradley Foundation, which has been pushing forward on the voucher program. What kind of effect does that have on the political landscape here, a tremendous amount of money being poured in as a kind of laboratory for the country?

SEN. GWEN MOORE: Exactly. And what is really wrong with the system is that there is now an effort to call for listing any sort of requirements on the program that the program participants meet income guideline, that they are residents of Milwaukee. Literally they’re calling for a program that will allow wealthier folk from suburban areas of the county and of the state to be able to subtract aid from the poor students in the state that live in Milwaukee. This is Brown versus The Board of Education turned on its head.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to state senator Gwen Moore. How does the war abroad affect Wisconsin?

SEN. GWEN MOORE: Again, we spent $200 billion in this — someone calculated that that’s $100,000 a minute that we’re spending on the war. In the meantime, we’ve had a $3 billion deficit in this state and all of our energy is being spent — we’ve diverted millions, billions of dollars from education, health care and job development for the war. I think that there is not a lot of support for the war in this state. I’ve had to look into the faces of mothers whose children have returned in body bags and it is heart breaking emotionally and psychologically and it hits us in our pocketbook as well. This is an unjust war that hurts spiritually, economically and emotionally.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you find that in this time with the very cash-strapped states, like Wisconsin, that lines are breaking down between democrats and republicans, because in a sense you’re in this together here with money siphoned off abroad. Do you find there is any kind of changing political landscape? For example, those who are with the president’s party, republicans who are opposed to the war or democrats who have supported the war beginning to oppose it?

SEN. GWEN MOORE: No. I think this state is polarized 50/50 or 47/47, just like every other state, around the candidacies of the democrats and the republicans. What I’m more concerned with are those 10% of the people who are not necessarily undecided voters, but they’re undecided as to whether or not to vote. Many of those people are people of color, they’re women. People who are just fed up, people who find themselves in a maze economically, socially — they’re marginalized. Those are the people, I think, that we have to appeal to. I think republicans are republicans and democrats are democrats, and there are the disaffected groups of people who are going to determine the outcome of the election here in this state.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.

SEN. GWEN MOORE: You’re all choked up, no doubt.

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