December 18, 2007

Talking About Poverty

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Mahatma Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst form of violence.  Indeed, poverty is not only the worst form of violence, but it often breeds violence.  It is a vicious cycle that threatens to consume our entire community.  Despite all this (or maybe because of it), a lot of people don’t want to talk about poverty. 

It’s something that we need to talk about, though, and we need to talk about it now.  Milwaukee is the eighth poorest city in America.  That statistic alone begs for action.  Something needs to be done to address the problem.  That means, first of all, recognizing the scope of the problem and, secondly, identifying the solutions that can be applied to it.

Today, nearly 26% of Milwaukeeans live below the poverty line, a number up from 21% in 2000.  That statistic equates to over 143,000 of our friends and neighbors who don’t make enough money to get by and provide for their families.  That we haven’t done more to solve this problem is an affront to our state’s proud progressive past.  To not do anything about it today is absolutely unacceptable.

The statistics get worse the closer you look.  Nearly one in three African-American families in Wisconsin lives in poverty, as does one in four Latino families.  Women and children make up a disproportionate number of our poor.  With teen pregnancy rates as high as they are, this trend doesn’t look likely to abate any time soon.

There are a million theories for how we got to this place.  They all have this message in common: Unless our government fundamentally changes its tone and focus in terms of poverty, a solution to our poverty problem isn’t on the horizon. 

In the past, our leaders have been either too apathetic or too overwhelmed to address this issue.  Even when potential solutions present themselves, there is division and delay.  Some of my colleagues and I have tried to push through several initiatives that would aid in skills enhancement and workforce training, giving people the tools they need to earn a living.  It never ceases to amaze me that our efforts, time and again, meet with opposition.

It is as if these officials are saying, “So what?” to the problems that plague our community.  Having never been around poverty themselves, they see no reason to help those who are struggling to provide basic necessities for their families. 

We need new priorities in government on both sides of the aisle.  We need a fundamental recognition of the problems that exist. We need a commitment to direct the resources and energies of our government toward combating this spreading disease of poverty.  Surely we’re not so blind to poverty that we won’t help people feed their families.

To provide that help, we must invest in quality education, job training, and lifelong skills enhancement.  We must play an active role in creating a talented workforce that has the flexibility to adapt to the 21st century economy.  This will not only help families subsist, but it will bring new opportunities and enterprises to our community.

This is the direction we MUST take if we ever want to climb out of the top ten poorest cities.  We know the direction, what we need is the compassion and the will to make a change.  I urge all my colleagues around the state to join with me in charting that new direction.