Earlier this month, I traveled to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district in Wisconsin to talk to his constituents about their economic struggles and ideas for solutions. This district has been hit particularly hard by the shipping of middle class jobs overseas, recessions, and the deterioration of labor protections.
While I was there, I also had the opportunity to speak with Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), First Vice Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Rep. Pocan’s district borders on the Speaker’s hometown of Janesville, and the two congressmen share representation of Rock County as well.
Despite seeing the same conditions on the ground, and their constituents having similar experiences in our economy, the congressmen’s ideas about how to reduce poverty in their state and throughout America could not be more different.
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Here is my conversation with Rep. Pocan:
Greg Kaufmann: Congressman, your district shares Rock County with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district. Can you tell us about the changes you have seen in terms of people’s economic struggles in the area in recent years?
Rep. Mark Pocan: Yes, I share Rock County with Paul, so I have the western side, and he has the eastern side. I also grew up in Kenosha, which is in his district, so I know the area well. We used to have a big auto plant, American Motors, for many, many years. Then it went away. And we went through some of the difficulties that the Speaker’s hometown of Janesville—which is in Rock County—has more recently gone through with GM leaving.
A couple of things that really stand out. In Janesville—having an auto plant where a lot of people had good family-supporting wages, and then having that industry and the industries that fed into it really impacted, a lot of people are out of work who had jobs that had good salaries.
Also, poverty programs in Rock County are pretty significant in helping people either transition because of a loss of a major employer, or because a number of employers over the years have left and made life more difficult.
So this is certainly a district that you would not describe as affluent. In fact, just the opposite. It’s had a lot of job and manufacturing industry loss in the last 20 years and that’s impacted good family-supporting wages.
GK: From a public policy perspective, when you think of the needs in the area and the way we combat poverty—what comes to mind?
MP: I am on the House Budget Committee. And when Paul was the Chair last session, he would often put a lot of ideas around poverty out there, which largely were around block grants. These days they now call them “opportunity granting,” but the bottom line is a lot of these ideas are really stealth ways to cut programs that assist people in poverty.
Also, if you block grant all these effective safety net programs—like housing, food stamps, and Medicaid—and just give a lump sum of money to states, I don’t have a high level of confidence that the right thing will happen for people who are living in poverty.
Take Wisconsin, for example. Governor Scott Walker hasn’t accepted federal monies for a high speed rail program—in fact, he turned back over $800 million dollars in federal monies before he even got sworn in, including $150 million for light rail even though we have the fourth worst roads in the nation and a lack of adequate funding for transit. He was trying to make a point about not taking federal dollars. So those are some of the bad decisions we’ve seen in just one state, much less bad decisions you could see in other states. We just can’t rely on all of these governors to continue the level of [federal] programs that are there now. So conservatives say block granting is about giving flexibility to local governments to most strategically use the money, but the reality is people could very likely just have less money and less help during a difficult time in their lives as they’re trying to find work.
GK: I’m sure you’ve had that conversation plenty of times with Speaker Ryan. What do [conservatives] say to the fact that the TANF block grant [has gone] from over two-thirds of families with children in poverty getting assistance, to less than one-fourth getting assistance?
– Rep. Mark Pocan
MP: Well, they just keep focusing on the flexibility to allow states and local government to best direct money. They know better than the federal government. It’s really more of a rhetorical exchange. They don’t actually address the facts.
GK: In contrast to focusing on block grants as conservatives prefer, what do you think a good anti-poverty proposal would do?
MP: I think most people would argue that the best poverty program is a job and anything we can do to help people find that job we should do. That means helping people acquire the skills to find a job with a family-supporting wage, so their families have the opportunity to live the American dream. It involves things like job training, and addressing childcare needs, investing in early childhood education, and making sure people can afford higher education. And of course increasing wages, including the minimum wage. Right now people are taking second jobs to try to get by, and that’s taking away from spending time with their families. So there’s a quality of life difference that definitely exists when you don’t have that stronger wage.
I’ve also always been a big fan of apprenticeship programs. I think Germany has about a tenfold use of apprenticeship-type programs per capita compared to us. There’s are a lot of things like that we can do to help people get on-the-job training that can turn into a good paying job, or help people overcome barriers—people who literally are going out there every single day trying to find something and can’t. But, you know, just simply providing less resources for people in poverty and putting artificial work requirements—that actually are barriers to the time and effort needed to find a good job—are going to be counterproductive compared to things that actually help people.
GK: Janesville and Rock County actually seem like a case study in why Speaker Ryan and other conservatives’ views on poverty are entirely wrong. It’s clear that they’ve had auto plants shutting down, offshoring of jobs—that is not the fault of workers who are struggling in poverty. Do you think Speaker Ryan is blind to this reality, or are his proposals on poverty purely ideological?
MP: Paul is a neocon ideologue, and this is how they think you solve it, based on their papers and all the rest. But the fact is Janesville is the antithesis of their kind of argument that poverty is about someone being too lazy to work, or someone [not being] out there trying to find a job. I would argue too many of my colleagues are millionaires and a bit too removed from poverty—that they just don’t understand the reality of the on-the-ground experience. In fact, too often it seems like until a Republican has something happen to a family member of theirs, it’s not real. Until they find out they have a kid who’s gay, or a kid who gets addicted to heroin, it’s not an issue, and then as soon as it is a personal issue for them, then suddenly they care. And unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of people in Congress who are directly affected by poverty.
This interview was edited for length.