January 18, 2005
I've been spending a little time watching the Wisconsin state legislature in action lately. It's not a pretty sight. As in most states, the Capitol building here, which once rang with the populist oratory of Fighting Bob La Follette, has been taken over by corporate lobbyists, and by their friends in the right wing of the Republican Party. The longest-serving member of the Assembly in Wisconsin history--Marlin Schneider, Democrat of Wisconsin Rapids--likes to remind people of the state's nearly forgotten progressive history. He sometimes grabs passers-by at random and gives them tours of the Capitol building, complete with a free lecture. "They don't know that more Wisconsin troops died in the Civil War than World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined," he says. "They don't know that this was the birthplace of Social Security, worker's comp and disability comp laws, veterans' hospitals. . . ." The list goes on.
Listening to Schneider, and to other out-of-power Democrats at both the state and national level, and looking at those dusty old busts of Bob La Follette, it has occurred to me that what we are going through now is nothing less than the unraveling of our nation's history, right back to the progressive era.
No wonder the Democrats in the Senate are turning to a pro-union, pro-life, old-style Democrat like Harry Reid to be their leader. The political gains of the 1960s and '70s are beginning to seem like extravagant frills. They've come to the conclusion that we can't spend precious capital defending Roe v. Wade, gay rights, or, god forbid, secularism in government, when the idea of retaining Social Security as a system of social insurance is about to bite the dust, and the National Labor Relations Board seems to be in the business of championing business concerns against the interests of workers. Take us forward to the 1930s! Let's get back the right to organize and a safety net for the elderly and disabled!
It's dizzying to think about having to live through the complete dismantling of the social compact, and then fight to recreate the whole thing--from the progressive-era anti-corruption reforms to the New Deal to the Great Society--from the ground up. But it may very well be what we are up against.
Let's hope things don't unravel too fast.
There is reason to hope.
Wisconsin, the birthplace of all that great progressive legislation, has recently been swamped by tax-cutting and gay-bashing, as well as the lobbyist-coddling legacy of our former governor, Tommy Thompson. As progressive attorney and Internet gadfly Ed Garvey (www.fightingbob.com) notes, Thompson's vision for the state was "bigger prisons connected by wider roads." As governor, Thompson also gave the nation his pet state program, welfare reform.
I covered Wisconsin's welfare reform experiments in the early 1990s, and was struck by how unsuccessful they were. From Learnfare, which kicked families off of welfare if their kids missed school (way to break the cycle of poverty!) to Bridefare--now a big hit with the marriage-promoting Bush Administration, to a statewide job training program whose graduates were less successful finding employment than welfare recipients who got no job training at all--welfare reform in Wisconsin was basically a bust. But that didn't stop it from catching on, or from propelling our governor to national political stardom. The idea that a lack of money was the main problem afflicting the poor was so pass� in the 1990s as to provoke sneers of derision from welfare-reform enthusiasts on both sides of the aisle.
But a decade later, after the evisceration of the New Deal guarantee of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, states are struggling with the problems of the poor in less booming economic times.
This has led to some not-so-new "outside the box" thinking.
So it is that, in New York, Republican Governor George Pataki has just unveiled a radical new proposal. New York may soon become the first state in the nation to give big earned-income tax credits to poor fathers who are supporting dependent children.
This marks a complete reversal of the welfare-reform wagon. Men were the first to lose welfare benefits in the welfare reform era. Even before single mothers were pushed to go to work and cut off aid, states were more interested in sending "bounty hunters" after the fathers of children on welfare--seizing their wages and sending them to jail--than in offering a helping hand or financial support.
But in New York and across the nation, after a decade of welfare reform, a big truth seems to have begun to sink in. It's not that these welfare dads are just deadbeats, hiding the cash from their children. For the most part, they have very little money to offer. The marriage-promotion programs so beloved by social conservatives have come up against the hard reality of very few eligible men with family-supporting wages to offer their would-be brides. (Kate Boo just won a national magazine award for a brilliant and compassionate piece on this phenomenon in The New Yorker.) Wielding a big stick didn't work all that well with impoverished families. So now New York is offering a carrot.
"The maximum annual credit such a man can receive now is $390 from the federal government and $130 from the state. Under Mr. Pataki's proposal, the same man could receive up to $1,590 from the state," The New York Times reports.
The tax credits far exceed what low-wage workers might have paid in taxes, the Times points out. "They are widely believed to have been pivotal in helping millions of women leave the welfare rolls in the last decade and stay in their jobs."
So now dads who stay current with child support can get this same life-saving cash benefit.
It just goes to show that if you study a problem long enough, and grapple with the real-world effects of policies, you might eventually come around to a common-sense response.
To get to the Pataki proposal, New York had to live through the complete dismantling of welfare. And, of course, we're still living with the problems of a welfare-reform mentality that puts low-wage work ahead of the welfare of children. With no safe, reliable, let alone caring and nurturing environment for the children of women on welfare, the states continue to run workfare programs that amount to institutionalized child neglect.
This was the very problem AFDC was originally conceived to ameliorate.
Still, there's something hopeful about a Republican governor in New York taking steps to reverse the ever-stingier and ever-more-punitive trend in policy towards the poor.
Perhaps, when it comes to Social Security, we won't have to live through a decade of experimenting with punishing retirees who don't make good stock picks before we see cooler heads prevail.