Creating an Economy of InclusionFriday, November 11, 2016 - Press Release
When I met Michael, he was clean cut and clean shaven like you'd expect from a man who used to wear our nation's uniform. There was a period in his life, though, when that wasn't the case—when he was homeless. Today Michael is getting the help he needs at a transitional facility on the Milwaukee VA grounds. I met Michael more than a year ago when I toured the facility, and I saw him again a few months ago at the same place. I was there to announce our "Welcome Home Veterans" effort focused on homeless vets, and Michael was seated in the front row. I told him afterward that the program was part of his legacy, because our first meeting had really mattered. When our conversation ended Michael smiled wide then went over to a gaggle of reporters who sought his opinion on the new initiative as a once-homeless vet himself.
Michael's story mattered to me when I first met him, and his opinion mattered to those reporters, because in an inclusive Wisconsin everyone matters. Too often in government we create institutions or programs that segregate from the rest of the community people who are seen as liabilities, rather than embracing them with respect and dignity. I think scholar Arthur Brooks, speaking about our prison population, hit the nail on the head, "Through action and inaction alike, our society has effectively decided that there are millions of our brothers and sisters, the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated, whom we simply do not need. At worst, we view them as human liabilities we must coexist with and manage at minimal cost; at best, as people we can tolerate and try to help. But as dormant assets to be enlivened and empowered? Hardly ever." (Michael, the veteran, was formerly incarcerated, too.)
Brooks charts the better way—to see all our citizens as individuals full of potential to contribute meaningfully to the economic and civic life of our communities. That radical commitment to inclusion must animate all of our efforts to fight poverty; we must pursue policies that include everyone in the life of our state, rather than creating programs that subsidize the exclusion of those who face hurdles to full participation. A good example of an inclusive Wisconsin is Governor Walker's "Year of the Better Bottom Line" initiative, which encouraged employers to consider the unique abilities of employees with physical and developmental challenges. Similarly, our skills training programs for prisoners prepare them to participate in the legal economy upon release back into our communities.
The same must be true of our approach to homelessness. It is not enough to simply add more beds to the shelter network. We need to start with the right policy framework. Homeless people are not inconveniences to be shunted into shelters where they cannot bother us on our walks to work or our strolls through the park. Every one of them is a unique person and a citizen of this state, and each has the potential to make meaningful contributions.
For virtually all homeless people, the goal is the same as for virtually all people generally: contributing to the community starts with inclusion in the economy, i.e., work. For those currently homeless, work is the antidote to a life otherwise characterized by despondency and dependency. Work is a source of meaning for those who currently feel no respect while begging for the charity of others. And very practically, a regular paycheck is the best way to afford a monthly rent or mortgage payment. In short, work helps heal both emotionally and practically: it provides both pride and a path to the middle class.
As a state we must partner with stakeholders and providers to ensure that our homeless population receives access to the training and job skills necessary to make them full participants in Wisconsin's economy. We have the infrastructure to do it, and there are jobs open every day awaiting willing workers. I was pleasantly surprised on a return trip to meet with a homelessness service provider when I was told that they were working with their local technical college on training. This is exactly the sort of innovative partnership that can give participants a huge boost to a new and better life.
While the goal is inclusion in Wisconsin's success story, the road to that goal may be longer and bumpier for some than others, as every case is different. For some people homelessness is a temporary condition brought on by an unexpected economic turn, family crisis, or medical emergency, and only a brief intervention is necessary to get them back on their feet. For others there are multiple hurdles to overcome before they are ready to work. In those cases, I've seen how a side-by-side approach to life most helps our chronically homeless. Whether the delivery method comes from a "housing first" or transitional program, or day-to-day check-ins by volunteers, caseworkers can and do help those struggling with inner demons like drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness and abuse survival. But we must be cautious in stamping cases "closed" simply because someone has a bed. People need other caring people to strengthen their coping abilities, work readiness, and resolve to end homelessness permanently. Though government has a role to play in solving this problem, it's civil society, and ultimately individual people, who provide the compassion, education, and accountability that help turn around their neighbors' lives.
Sometimes those services can be delivered in a shelter setting, while other times it can happen in a low-income apartment community. Here again, inclusion in the community is the touchstone for success. For instance, the affordable apartment communities operated by Housing Ministries of American Baptists place community centers with job coaching, childcare, and wellness programs in the heart of their buildings and staff them with residents of the complex. Here, kids find a safe space after school or during the summer and adults can continue their educations, boosting their job prospects. Moreover, having residents operate these programs adds another level of accountability and ownership often unseen in nearby neighborhoods.
Speaking of kids, a Wisconsin that appreciates and includes every citizen embraces not only adults, but the rising generation as well. When a family constantly bounces between houses, kids are often forced to switch schools. We know that students in unstable housing situations who frequently change schools often underperform when compared to their classmates. That is why I was proud to stand with our Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) to announce new projects targeting low-income and homeless families in Madison and Milwaukee. Affordable housing that is accessible to very low-income folks integrates people into communities and creates the stability that children need to set down roots and thrive in and out of school.
Many of the families in affordable housing are on Section 8 vouchers or other government assistance. Here we see an unfortunate reality that happens in multiple programs, where government isn't moving levers in the right direction to incentivize work. In fact, a paycheck from work may even jeopardize some families' abilities to make current ends meet, forcing them into perpetual poverty. Time and time again I hear complaints about the "benefits cliffs" that trap working families in poverty and make it nearly impossible to truly work your way out of being poor. These cliffs are created when government programs provide money to people- and then cut off the flow of assistance completely at a certain dollar amount. If government gives an earner $10 as long as he earns $5 or less, why would that guy want to take the pay raise to $6 knowing he'd then get kicked out of the government program? His $5 paycheck was pulling in an extra $10 in government assistance: he had $15. Take a promotion to earn $6 and you lose the $10 completely because the cutoff is like a cliff. $15 versus $6. People are rational, and they usually make the most efficient choice in each instance, which has the long-term effect of freezing people in low-wage, low-responsibility jobs. We cannot remove rungs on the ladder to the American Dream and make upward mobility a near impossibility. We must work together to see that everyone in our state realizes the rewards that come through hard work and a paycheck.
These are problems we can work together to solve. Finding the right solutions starts with identifying the right first principles, like inclusion, community, accountability, and work. Michael's story is a powerful reminder that Wisconsin's homeless population must not be treated as a costly liability, but as untapped talent who can help move our state forward.