Growing up in the then-integrating Washington Heights neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, the Brawler was privy to conversations about race. Lots of them. Some of them edifying. Some of them not so much. Lotsa N words flying.
Folks who talked that way often would make another claim: that blacks were moving up to Milwaukee to get welfare.
So this stuff was old hat to the Brawler in 1986 when Tommy Thompson was making his run for governor and claiming Wisconsin was a "welfare magnet." In his "book" "Power to the People," Tommy says:
When I was first running for governor, riding from town to town asking people what they wanted to do if I was elected, changing welfare was high on most everyone's list. The overwhelming refrain from working people was, "People on welfare should have to work." ... Jobs and working people were leaving the state because our economy was so bad, but welfare recipients were moving in because our benefits were so high.
Translation: Tommy saw racebaiting on welfare as an effective wedge issue against Tony Earl.
Why is the Brawler going into ancient history? Because the right has pounded on this theme endlessly since then. The portrayal of Wisconsin as a "Welfare magnet" has been repeated endlessly by the Right over the past 20 years. And true to form, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute raises it in a report claiming that 142,000 moochers will be drawn to the state should Healthy Wisconsin pass. (The Brawler will note the report fails to explain why Healthy Wisconsin will he a magnet for 100,000+ moochers when Badger Care hasn't drawn any.)
The problem is that endlessly repeating the "Welfare magnet" claim doesn't make it true. It just makes it a big -- and viciously racist -- lie.
From the report:
Roughly 25 years ago, Wisconsin found itself at the center of a debate over what was then called "welfare migration." Proponents of the welfare migration thesis argued that Wisconsin was attracting poor families from neighboring states (Illinois in particular) because its welfare were comparatively generous.
Yes there was a debate. But people arguing that people moved north to collect fatter checks never could make their case.
From the 2/5/89 Los Angeles Times:
But is it the welfare money that is drawing people north?
A study commissioned by the state three years ago concluded that, by and large, the answer was "no." Paul Voss, a University of Wisconsin demographer who authored the report, said interviews with thousands of newly arrived welfare recipients found that the overwhelming reasons most gave for moving were to be near family and friends. "Lowering welfare benefits is not going to make much of a dent in the flood of migrants," Voss predicted.
However, a recent study by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a Milwaukee-based conservative think tank, hints that the answer may be "yes." According to the report, which analyzed three years of residency data for welfare applicants, newcomers accounted for 29% of all newly opened AFDC cases statewide and 43% of all the new cases in the Milwaukee area and other counties close to Illinois.
John Wahner, one of the authors, cautioned that his report made no attempt to conclude why welfare recipients were flocking here. Still, Wahner, a former Democratic leader in the state Assembly and until recently head of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services, said the study raised "disturbing" questions.
(As a footnote: Richard Cebula, who worked on the '89 WPRI study, is one of the authors of the Healthy Wisconsin report.)
Or take a study done by Maximus, which found that benefits ranked low on the list (though the right claimed it as vindicating its case!). Fomr the 5/23/95 Chicago Tribune:
The study, by the Virginia-based Maximus consulting firm, found that 29 percent of respondents from Chicago cited higher welfare benefits in their decision to move to Wisconsin. Twenty-one percent said better Medicaid benefits were a factor.
Forty-six percent who moved to Wisconsin said they already had family members there. And a little over half of that 46 percent said those Wisconsin family members were on welfare.
"If the family member (in Wisconsin) is on welfare, chances are there will be some communications going on (with the person considering a move) to the effect that welfare is a factor," said Phil Richardson, a principal investigator at Maximus.
But the study's other findings supported contentions that welfare is not Wisconsin's main attraction for poor people. Far larger percentages of those surveyed cited less crime (64 percent), better schools (57.8 percent), job opportunities (44.1 percent) and getting away from a bad home situation (43.5 percent) as the key factor in moving.
"It doesn't strike me as that much different from the survey results we got back in the late 1980s, when people gave as a dominant reason for relocating to Wisconsin safer streets and quality-of-life issues," said Tom Corbett, associate director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin.
The study was of 772 recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the four southern Wisconsin counties-Kenosha, Racine, Rock and Milwaukee-that are participating in Gov. Tommy Thompson's two-tier welfare demonstration project.
Now it would be interesting if the racist ravings of my old neighbors proved to be true. But that never happened. Quite the contrary, actually. You would think the (to put it kindly) ambiguity around the welfare magnet claim -- the real question whether it was ever anything more than a race baiting tactic -- would make people hesitant to invoke it.
Instead we get this old lie repeated by Charlie Sykes, Deb Jordahl, and the WPRI. Which just goes to show that even in the era of Obama you can go far in Wisconsin by demonizing black people.