February 19, 2009

Poverty

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Poverty is like a weed.  If you’ve lived in Milwaukee for any period of time, then you know what I’m talking about.  You’ve seen, first hand, poverty’s growing and ugly effects on our neighborhoods.  You’ve witnessed beautiful landscaped communities become marred by patches of desolation and hopelessness.

I’ve lived in Milwaukee my entire life.  Not suburban areas, but blue collar, factory working, two-jobs-to-get-by Milwaukee.  Our parents worked hard, prayed harder, and were hard on us.  Education was a priority and family was everything. 

In my neighborhood, kids played outside and people looked out for one another.  Growing up there were some of the best days of my life.  These memories are why I’m so heartbroken to see what’s happened to my neighborhood and many surrounding communities.

Many neighborhoods have changed.  When you mention them these days the conversations often turn to crime, unemployment, and failing schools.  Kids play outside at their own risk.  Yellow police tape has become all too familiar.  Factories stand vacant and graduation rates continue to fall.  Thriving communities have been replaced with struggling households, often overrun by the weeds of poverty.  And like any weed, now that it’s there, it’s tough to get rid of.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently published a study along those lines.  The study found what many of us already know: Poverty breeds more poverty.  Children growing up in poor families experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, impairing brain development.  Predictably, memory and language development are inhibited, making it tougher on the child to escape poverty later in life.  That’s a big reason why well over 50% of people born in the bottom fourth of America’s income distribution stay there.

So when poverty takes root somewhere, we’re right to want to fight it before it sets in and spreads to a whole new generation.  We’re right to protest when government fails to give it the attention it deserves.  Oftentimes, though, our rightful indignation is painted as bleeding-heart liberalism; a bunch of banner waiving by people at the fringes of their own party. 

If there’s anything to be learned from the AAAS study, it’s that poverty has a far broader and more pervasive impact than most people give it credit for.  Its effects stretch beyond those who suffer from it and those who are morally outraged by its existence.  The study shows that some poverty now means more in the future.  It means more welfare parents; more uninsured families; more uneducated kids.  That’s bad for all of us, wherever we are on the economic ladder.

If the human cost doesn’t sell you on the need to address poverty, consider the financial cost.  In the current budget, hundreds of millions of dollars are appropriated for social services and poverty aid.  Unless we do something to reduce poverty in the long term, the study tells us that poverty will plant its seed, grow up and out, take over more communities, and consume greater investment from the state.  Folks in the suburbs will feel the sting of poverty on their pocketbooks, even as families in the inner-city feel it in their stomachs.

This isn’t a political, racial, or demographic issue.  Poverty is a Wisconsin issue that will ultimately affect us all unless we do something to uproot it now.  Doing something might mean making short-term sacrifices to achieve long-term goals.  It might mean investing in the war on poverty now, so that our kids aren’t bankrupted by it later. 

Some people paint that as tax-and-spend liberalism.  It’s not.  It’s smart investing—paying a little now so that we don’t pay a lot later.  At a time when political partisanship is greater than ever before, this is the rarest of political issues: A win-win.  So it’s time to invest in that fight.  It’s time to take that weed by the base and tear it out.  For the sake of neighborhoods like my old neighborhood, where I continue to live, work, and fight to make change, it’s time.