Congresswoman Gwen Moore about to speak on the DNC stage in Milwaukee on Monday, August 17. Photo courtesy of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee (“DNCC”), all rights reserved.
“I was very, very happy to join this committee,” Congresswoman Gwen Moore tells Wisconsin Examiner, speaking of the new Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. Moore adds that “my own lived experience, my legislative experience, my work on these various issues” give her a valuable perspective to contribute. Created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the committee aims to create policies and proposals for Congress that begin to break down the economic barriers erected and sustained by systemic inequality.
Moore, who grew up in Milwaukee, understands many of those barriers all too well. “I think that I was a sociological miracle, given all the disadvantages that you’re born with,” she admits, looking back at her own life. In Milwaukee, one of America’s most segregated cities, it’s a common observation that your future is determined by what zip code you’re born into.
Even life expectancy can differ by up to 12 years, depending on the part of Milwaukee where a person resides. A myriad of factors play into that, from lack of economic opportunity to health impacts stemming from dilapidated infrastructure including lead water pipes, to the cumulative stresses of life in poverty.
“I remember attending North Division High School,” recalls Moore, “and getting so fired up when my chemistry teacher told me that we couldn’t do half the experiments in the book because we didn’t have the equipment in our chemistry lab.” She adds that this aspect of her home city, “is kind of a secret to most people. They don’t realize that Milwaukee has a very high Black poverty rate. …We have the second lowest Black home ownership rate among the nation’s largest metropolises. We’re among the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the country. We have 72% of our Black children attending hyper-segregated schools which, of course, then diminishes their learning experience.”
Some of the city’s most segregated schools have enrollments of over 90% minority students, the same as in 1965. A July 2020 report by UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development which focused on Milwaukee’s standing among the nation’s large cities noted numerous economic disparities that have lingered in Milwaukee, even as other cities began to desegregate during the 1980s.
It noted, for instance, that the “income of the median Black household in Milwaukee is only 42% that of a white (non-Hispanic) household, the biggest racial disparity in the country.” Children born into low-income Black homes may be expected to make 80% less in income as young adults. Some two-thirds of Black males between 25 and 54 years of age were unemployed in Milwaukee from 2016 to 2018. Disparities are even seen among high school dropouts, with whites more than twice as likely to find employment as Black residents who drop out.
The figures weren’t created overnight, and have gradually grown due to practices like economic starvation of communities and red-lining to prevent Black residents from owning or renting homes in more desirable neighborhoods.
“So when I say that I’m a sociological miracle, what I mean is I had to crawl and scrap at what I regard as the structural disadvantages which I grew up with,” says Moore. “The ability to prepare for college, the ability to even go to college, think about going to college. When I was first accepted into college at Marquette University, I had a baby, I was on welfare. And the welfare department tried to count my tuition and book money as income. So it disqualified me for the aid I needed to rear my daughter. And I see Black people, in our city, subjected to what I regard as arbitrary and racist sorts of moves in order to keep them economically disadvantaged in our economic system.”
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Finding a way to produce policies targeted at breaking these cycles was the initial motivation for creating the new Congressional committee. Moore noted that leaders in the Progressive Caucus pressed Pelosi to find a way to address all of the policies that contribute to disparity in a single body. “Various committees that had jurisdiction in disparities and disadvantages were spread out all over the place,” says Moore.
Whether it was health care disparity issues, or criminal justice-related policies, the many facets of the issue had been siloed off from one another. “So I think Nancy Pelosi wanted to put together a committee that could look at the plight of people in rural areas, the plight of women, the plight of Blacks, the plight of brown people. And sort of pull all of this information together so that we could have a systemic approach to mitigating some of the disparities.”
Moore was chosen to join the select committee by Pelosi, with her main role made clear. Her hometown is the national epicenter for many of these complex cycles. The committee’s mission draws from the Temporary National Economic Committee, which was created by President Franklin Roosevelt and the Congress following the Great Depression.
“I think this committee is going to try to look at the kind of structural disadvantages of not just Black people, but people in regions in the county like the Midwest, farmers, women, people of color,” says Moore. “What are the institutional, structural and legal arrangements that contribute to disparities and disadvantages? That would include, I would think, the wage gap between ordinary workers and CEOs. That would include the wealth gap.”
She rejects the notion that these sorts of economic disparities stem mainly from lack of personal responsibility — the classic “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. “If these people had money to spend, they would plow it back into our economy,” Moore stresses. Policy proposals to reverse much of the economic damage that’s been done must be as wide-ranging as the damage itself. “I was very supportive of the child tax credit, which I want to see become permanent,” Moore says. “Because that is a great example of how we could cut poverty of Black children in half. And the point has been made that it’s expensive, but the poverty of children is more expensive.” Other policies, like expanding Social Security and addressing stagnant wages are also on her radar.
Moore feels that suburban communities also have a role to play. In Milwaukee, communities like Shorewood, Wauwatosa and other surrounding suburbs have historically benefited directly from redlining practices and segregation. “It is terrible,” says Moore, “because we have had a whole transportation system that hasn’t grown outside of Milwaukee because of the suburban segregation. So it’s very hard for Black workers to get out of the city to some of the jobs in the suburbs. So I do think that one of the things that we can do to address this right away is to have an expansion of transportation opportunities. But of course suburbanites and a lot of the Republican legislators resist creating public transportation options. Which would ameliorate some of the lack of opportunity right away.”
Another complex issue Moore is considering as a select committee member is adjusting property tax laws in Wisconsin. “Would it be possible to sustain these neighborhoods by having a different property tax burden for people based on their income?” She wonders. “That would create some equity, but it would violate the uniformity clause,” she says, referring to a provision of the Wisconsin Constitution that keeps down property taxes. “We really have to look at putting the burden on people differently,” says Moore, “and that’s one of the things that could happen.”
In addition to tackling some of these more complex issues, Moore hopes the select committee will bridge a gap in perspectives. That gap exists not just between political parties but also between Milwaukee’s inner-city and its suburbs. “It’s really an education process,” says Moore, particularly when people may not acknowledge that an issue even exists. Moore uses Milwaukee’s public school system as an example.
“Milwaukee Public Schools has a billion-dollar budget,” she explains. “And that is a big number, except when you look at what they have to do with it. They have the largest numbers of kids to take care of. We have the kids with the most needs and the most problems. We have 25,000 cases a year of kids being diagnosed with lead poisoning. We have all of these challenges, and a limited budget. We have larger classrooms. And so, the disadvantages and the disparities start very, very young and accumulate.”
To give some perspective Moore recalls, “I remember my kid being in the class once and the teacher explaining that there was one computer in the whole class and that if the kids were good, they would have an opportunity to get on the one computer…Other school districts can take [computer access] for granted.”
Overcoming these barriers is a big task, yet Moore is highly optimistic about the select committee. Moore is one of the eight Democrats who will sit on the committee, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.). Republican members are still being named. Moore hopes that the committee will provide an opportunity, “to create an environment of really wanting to get something done.” Looking across the aisle to her Republican colleagues Moore hopes that “they bring people to the table who are really ready to have some conversations.”
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