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Three Women, Ten Kids, a New York Times Reporter and a Harvard Business School Professor

What is it about Milwaukee lately? We’ve kind of mooched along here for years, not too talented, not too dumb, on a nice lakeshore…a good place to be from. Now all of a sudden, all sorts of people find us terribly interesting. Jason DeParle, New York Times reporter, writes this book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare. You can’t turn on a public radio station without hearing a review. I can’t help but wonder what this book sounds like to people outside Milwaukee. For the last five years I’ve lived a few blocks from Angie, Jewell and Opal, the three women in the book. The story sounds familiar to me. When Angie says, “With welfare or without it…you just learn how to survive” (p 156), I know what she means. Most of the time in Riverwest I have been just barely making it…when I’m making it. Paying bills when the money’s there, going without when it’s not. Figuring out how to stretch when someone needs help, so somehow there’s enough to share. And now, Milwaukee is being ogled again. Professor Michael Porter of Harvard Business School is looking toward the inner city of Milwaukee as an interesting economic laboratory. Entrepreneurial Spirit To his credit, Prof. Porter recognizes the entrepreneurial spirit in the inner city. He speaks eloquently about “clusters” of related businesses increasing and concentrating wealth. I’m sure these concepts would be familiar to the people in American Dream. Here’s DeParle’s description of Ken, Jewel’s boyfriend: “Ken soon discovered he had the qualities a good drug dealer needs. He was smart, personable, and hardworking. …And since he didn’t consume his product, he didn’t burn up his profits…. In Ken’s line of work, sex and drugs meet at an economic crossroads. What addicts demand are drugs. What they can supply is sex, even when their pockets are empty. Crack houses are filled with bingeing women eager to sell [themselves for $10] to finance another high. ‘It don’t make no sense to sell your body for a bag.’ Ken would say. ‘Come with me and I could make you a hundred dollars or two hundred dollars.’ Some people call this pimping, but that’s a word Ken generally avoided. He saw himself more as a talent scout, a middle man in the great American tradition.” (p. 182-3) I wonder if any of the programs that Prof. Porter is designing would be appropriate for Ken. Would a program for young entrepreneurs throw Ken away because his talents were put to “inappropriate” uses? Little Has Changed What I found most discouraging about Jason DeParle’s book was how little had changed in the day-to-day lives of the women he describes. Their economic situation still had the same background stress and worry: “Large numbers of welfare-to-work successes report problems in obtaining basic necessities…. a quarter to a half of former recipients report shortages of food. Similar percentages cite an inability to pay rent and utilities.” (p. 287) High Hopes Prof. Porter believes deeply in his program of competitiveness and economic development. It really makes sense that people should be able to have work with family-supporting wages. Certainly this is not beyond our means. Is it? It won’t be a quick fix, and it can’t come from the government. It can come from having a plan and following it. It can come from collaborating and forming partnerships. Those are all fine sounding words, but a challenge…a real challenge…for some of the discouraged people Prof. Porter hopes to serve. The other thing he says we need, even he admits is a challenge. That thing we need is confidence. “Can you actually do it?” he asked in his roll-out speech for his “Call to Action” project. “Can you believe that you can be successful? Particularly when I sense a fatalism; Oh my god, we’re in trouble. We’re just in a declining part of the country. Don’t believe it,” he asserts. “I have worked in very many places in this world and in this country that had just a shadow of assets, and they’ve made it a success.” Can we believe one more time? After W-2 sent us out to work for someone else’s profit while we made minimum wage and left our kids at home, struggling in poverty just like they were before? I don’t know if Prof. Porter is right, but he’s kind of set us up. If we don’t believe, if we don’t have confidence, he tells us it certainly won’t work. If we do have confidence, and everything else works out, it might work. It seems to me we have a history of going along with whatever program gets shoved at us. You want to give me a welfare check? Okay. You want to take it away again? Oh, well. You want me to go to a job training program? Whatever. You want to hire me and tell me I can’t miss work if my kids are sick, then fire me at the end of my probation period just before my benefits kick in? Can’t do anything about that, I guess. You want me to have confidence in your program? Sure. Say, you wouldn’t have an extra buck on you, would you? It ain’t easy out here, Professor, waiting for your five, 10, 15 year process to kick in. But we’re good at doing what it takes to survive while we wait. We’ve had lots of practice.