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Wisconsin’s War on the Poor

By Michael Komba of Casa Maria Community If concerns for the poor and people of color are really to be on the agenda this election year, the most pressing issue to be addressed is the struggle against W-2 or Wisconsin Works. When W-2 began, homelessness skyrocketed, the need for food stamps, housing assistance and food pantries increased, and finding transportation and childcare for people of low income became more difficult. Mothers and fathers on W-2 complained of being mistreated and lied to by W-2 corporate agencies, a general lack of educational opportunities, and being forced work demeaning jobs that lacked promised skill training. At Casa Maria Catholic Worker, a house of hospitality for homeless mothers and children in Milwaukee, we hear many stories from Black and Latina mothers who are homeless because their W-2 agency has illegally cut off their funds. We hear from mothers who are forced into “job skills training classes” in which they sort hangers at Kohl’s Department Store, work at Taco Bell, or take computer classes – with no teacher. While this lack of education continues, Wisconsin jails more black residents than any other state. According to a study by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, Blacks and Latinas/os are sanctioned or kicked off W-2 at double the rate of whites. Likewise, 80 percent of Hmong families say their lives are worse under W-2. About 75 percent have reported less income, and over half have less food than prior to welfare privatization in 1996. About 90 percent say they cannot communicate effectively with their caseworkers. To make matters worse, the majority of our taxes for W-2 are going towards the corporate agencies’ administrative costs, which use up an average of 63 cents out of every dollar! This leaves only 37 cents for actual services for mothers and fathers who need assistance. It is not uncommon to see social workers driving expensive cars next to mothers struggling to get their children off the bus near W-2 agencies. These private companies are wreaking havoc on poor mothers and fathers throughout Wisconsin. Maximus, which has a $70 million per year contract with the state, has been sued for race and sex discrimination by 20 of its own workers, and has misused half a million state tax dollars by spending it on advertising in other states. UMOS, which has a $23.8 million contract, has recently been fined $168,000 by the state for illegally cutting services for families in their program. In 86 of the 110 cases examined at UMOS, parents were denied resources they were legally supposed to receive. This means that 75 percent of the people who receive W-2 at UMOS do not get services they need. OIC, Milwaukee’s other W-2 agency, has been taking money from the federal government to study “why poor black mothers don’t want to get married.” This research is a baseless, discriminatory waste of our money. Five of OIC’s top administrators make over $100,000 a year, while poor families continue to get services cut through their W-2 program. William Clay, the CEO of OIC, has had his salary double in the past 8 years. OIC also gave $500,000 to recalled Senator Gary George as a kickback while poor families suffered! Luckily, there is hope. Because of pressure from mothers, advocates for the poor, the Welfare Warriors, and the Milwaukee County W-2 Task Force, YW Works was kicked off W-2 at the end of last year. YW Works had the highest sanction rate of all 72 W-2 agencies in Wisconsin. When they were still on the W-2 payroll, they were allowed to keep all money not given to economically sanctioned poor families, and they were only one of five W-2 agencies allowed to do this in the state! This is the first time ever that a W-2 agency has been kicked off welfare, and this is a great time of celebration for those working for justice. Unfortunately, the people who receive services from YW Works will now be shifted to other corrupt agencies. For too long, these agencies have taken money from families who want to get themselves out of poverty. The people of Wisconsin must confront, and if need be, shut down the institutions that directly impoverish people.Only then will we truly be changing the situation for the poor.