Rep. Gwen Moore tells Paul Jay of her journey from poverty to Congress, and how Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms and corporate Democrats refusal to deal with chronic poverty, has allowed the GOP to obstruct legislation that would bring millions out of deep poverty
Paul Jay: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re in Chicago at the People’s Summit. Now joining us in our little studio, here, in Chicago is Gwen Moore. She’s a US Representative from Milwaukee, and a former state senator from Wisconsin. She’s reintroducing the RISE Out of Poverty Act. She was formerly on welfare, herself. How do you get from being on welfare to being a congresswoman?
Gwen Moore: I tell you, what brought me to congress is my passion for supporting poor children and women, and really, fighting against the narrative that poor people, somehow, have character flaws. As an 18-year old mother, I went through the system, and was humiliated, and mistreated. The system made tremendous efforts to prevent me from getting an education. Preventing me from retaining custody of my child. The fact that I was able to escape, I was able to escape with a lot of community support, but I see that there is a deliberate effort to destroy these families. I’m determined to mend that safety net that was destroyed, not only at the federal level, on a bipartisan basis, but it started right in Wisconsin, so I feel really compelled to work on this issue.
Paul Jay: You were elected to the US Congress in 2005?
Gwen Moore: Right. Yes, I was. I started to serve in 2005.
Paul Jay: The legislation that undid what welfare safety net there was, was passed under Bill Clinton, a Democratic Party president.
Gwen Moore: Absolutely. 1996. But, before it passed in the United States Congress, it passed in the Wisconsin State Legislature, under then-Governor Tommy G. Thompson. I was a state senator, and I was on the floor with a hundred amendments, to try to stop this from happening. Every state in the Union, even some European countries, came to Wisconsin and modeled their legislation after what happened in Wisconsin. A newspaper in New York, the Village Voice, called it “Frankenstein’s experiment with welfare reform.”
You know, for the first time since the Social Security Act was established, we turned little children over to the tender mercies of our capitalist society, and said, “You know, if your parents don’t have a job, then we won’t support you.” The ability of both Democrats and Republicans to come together in 1996 and decide to end welfare, as we know it, only set the table for what is happening now.
Paul Jay: What did that to your understanding, connection to the Democratic party? This is your president, trashing the welfare system.
Gwen Moore: I can tell you it served to sever a main artery for being able to organize, as a Democrat. I can tell you, our consultants have told us that we shouldn’t use the word “poor.” It’s very, very difficult, in Congress, to talk about poverty, without some criticism. Of course, when you’re out organizing, people who are poor, they’re poor, but they’re not stupid. They know that there is a marginal concern about their well-being. The data are very, very clear that Republicans and Conservatives have made inroads into all of our communities. Nobody wants to see themselves as poor. In the last recession, we had 56 million people who were poor, based on poverty indicators, such as the Federal poverty level, but yet, none of those people want to see themselves as poor.
Paul Jay: Now, you started working on the RISE Out of Poverty Act, or a variation of, the day you got elected, in 2005.
Gwen Moore: The day I was elected.
Paul Jay: Well, you had another Democratic Party president elected, President Obama, who controlled both Houses. The Democratic Party controlled both Houses for the first two years of his administration. How come they didn’t pass it, then?
Gwen Moore: We were in control for one session. The healthcare bill, climate change bill, there were other initiatives that were on the table. I can tell you that I wanted to be strategic about pushing for the bill. First of all, I was not on the committee of jurisdiction, the Ways and Means Committee, and I’m trying very hard to get on that Committee, in order to lead this effort. But, secondly, I wanted to make sure that I built the political will, not necessarily among Republicans, but among Democrats, to get it passed. As I pointed out to you, there are so many Democrats who supported the notion of ending welfare, that bought into the notion and narrative that these are lazy people.
Paul Jay: Chuck Schumer actually writes in his book that the Democratic Party needed to look tough on this issue.
Gwen Moore: Exactly.
Paul Jay: It was a totally [electorial 00:05:52], pragmatic positioning. It had nothing to do with what anyone actually thought about what’s good for alleviating poverty.
Gwen Moore: Right. When we start talking about expanding the Democratic Party and bringing people into our party, where else are there the treasure trove of supporters and voters, other than these beleaguered women, who are, literally, out on their own. In this last recession, there are numbers of books that have been written to describe the plight of these poor women. Evicted, was one of the books that Dr. Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize for, that described the plight of poor women, poor families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who had to pay, practically, market rate for housing.
We had two dollars a day. A book written about the millions of people who lived on two dollar a day, or less. Of course, during this last recession, there were millions of children, ten million children, who lived in households where there was no income, other than food stamps. The reluctance, on the part of many Democrats, to own the poverty issue, is something that I need to organize around.
Paul Jay: This last election campaign, I’m not sure I heard the words “poverty” come out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth. Maybe. I can’t say I looked all the time, but it surely wasn’t an issue. I mean, everybody talks about middle class, middle class, but there’s never an upper and a lower. There’s only this middle.
Gwen Moore: Again, it’s because they’re not making the stuff up. The Republicans have done a very good job of driving poor people into the underground. Making people feel ashamed, and guilty, and feeling that they have some character flaws, based on their poverty. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, is from my state. Was chairman of the budget committee. Every year he was the chairman of the budget committee, I served on that committee. When he would roll out his pathways out of poverty initiatives, the last time, he did it in front of a drug house. What is the equivalent between being poor, and being a drug addict? None. There are so many data that demonstrate that poor people, surprisingly, are less likely to use drugs. I mean, they don’t have money.
Paul Jay: How do they afford it?
Gwen Moore: They can’t afford it. Yet, to send that message, or to send the message that we need to make these lazy people, who are on food stamps, get a job.
Paul Jay: They gotta dehumanize people who you would like to disappear.
Gwen Moore: You need to build the political will among Americans that allow people to go hungry, so that you can take a trillion dollars out of Medicaid. So, you can take billions of dollars out of food stamps. These entitlement programs-
Paul Jay: What do you make out of what’s going on now? Because, I’m not hearing the Democratic Party screaming about this. They’re screaming about the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.
Gwen Moore: I’m very concerned about the Russians coming, as well. I’m very concerned about climate change. But, these are intersectional issues. The extent to which we try to separate the plight of the poorest people in our country, from all the other issues, is what keeps us disconnected. Here we are, at the People’s Summit, and it’s not really clear, to me, that there’s a lot of discussion about poverty. There’s a lot of discussion about climate change, and about the Fight for 15, and other very important issues, but the willingness of the American people to accept millions of people who live in poverty, and just ascribe that to their laziness or character flaws-
Paul Jay: Add another thing. We’re based in Baltimore. Add to that, 350 murders a year. Clearly, the consequence of living in deep, chronic poverty, and that becomes just another norm that hardly gets talked about.
Gwen Moore: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.
Paul Jay: We’re gonna follow you and your legislation. We’re in Baltimore, but we’re also in D.C., so we’ll come see you there, and we’ll see how the course of this RISE Out of Poverty bill goes.
Gwen Moore: It’s a deal.
Paul Jay: Thanks very much.
Gwen Moore: Thank you.
Paul Jay: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.