Wisconsin’s Worst in the Nation Decline of Middle Class a Bipartisan Disaster

By: Robert Kraig, executive director, Citizen Action of Wisconsin

Veteran economic reporter Mike Ivey has an important article this week in the Cap Times on new Pew research which shows the middle class has shrunk in Wisconsin more than any other state.

The numbers are alarming to say the least. Since 2000 median adjusted household income in Wisconsin has fallen 14.7% when adjusted for inflation, from $60,344 to $51,467. In addition, 5.7% of Wisconsin incomes have fallen out of the middle class category. These numbers are even more striking one you overlay racial disparities. Research released this month by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) shows that 64% of Wisconsin’s African American working families and 72% of Wisconsin’s Latino working families are low income.

It is important for progressives to acknowledge that the free fall of the middle class in Wisconsin cannot be blamed entirely on Scott Walker. This human-made disaster has occurred on a bipartisan basis.

The Pew numbers cover the years 2000 through 2013. During that period we had 8 years of a Democratic governor and 6 years of three different Republican governors. The Legislature was split between the two parties for 7 years and held entirely by one party for 7 years. In that period there was 2 years of total Democratic control of the Legislature and Executive branch (2009-2010) and 3 years of full Republican control of both branches (2011-2013), a total of 5 of the 14 years.

There is no reasonable doubt that Scott Walker has accelerated the decline by damaging unions, and generally taking money out of the hands of working people that they would spend in the local economy. Walker’s no-strings attached economic policy, which is premised on bribing multinational corporations to move to Wisconsin from neighboring states, has been a trainwreck.

Although the decline of the great Wisconsin middle class is bipartisan, it does not mean each party is equally to blame. The brand of conservatives who currently dominate the Republican Party cling to an ideology that will only accelerate the race to the bottom. The Democratic Party is split between those who want to take bold action, and those who propose a limited set of policy solutions that may slow the decline of economic opportunity, but are not of the scale to turn it around.

State government did not create the entire problem by any means, as the rigging of the economy against working people has occurred at the national and international levels. However, state government is a critical part of the solution. To rebuild the great Wisconsin middle class, and open it up to all those who have been recently pushed out or excluded for generations, will require bold policies to create more family supporting jobs. The economy is a human made system that has been rigged against average people in favor of the wealthy and large multinational corporations. The only way to reverse these trends is the maximum use of all available public leverage reshape the economy by pushings wages higher.

Bold solutions are essential, but in order to enact them the public must be inspired to confident action. The eight hundred pound gorilla in the room is pervasive public cynicism about what is possible, fomented by the far right. The public does not even expect major improvements in their lives can be achieved through the action of their own democracy. Progressives need a new language of bold economic reform to inspire the public to believe that great things are still possible.

We will have much more on this in the future, especially in a new Citizen Action of Wisconsin blog we will soon unveil on progressive messaging.


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