Our Views: Economic recovery a mirage for too many

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Gazette Editorial Board
Thursday, September 22, 2016

Several groups and businesses, including The Gazette, have declared repeatedly that the 2008 closing of the General Motors plant did not spell doom for residents and their pocketbooks.

The region has proven resilient, and we continually laud efforts to attract new business ventures, such as SHINE Medical Technologies, which made official this week its plans to move its corporate offices to downtown Janesville.

But in our collective push to frame Janesville as an up-and-coming business center, perhaps we've oversold the depth of this economic recovery.

New U.S. Census Bureau statistics show poverty levels in Rock County remain stubbornly high in the wake of the Great Recession, nearly doubling since 2005, and lingered at 14.5 percent last year. Yes, median household incomes have risen, too, but too many post-recession jobs are part time and offer minimal benefits.

It's a sobering reminder that the gulf between the haves and have-nots continues to widen with no obvious solution in sight.

Politicians, including candidates for the 1st Congressional District, offer platitudes, but Beltway partisanship prevents the passage of any substantive proposal to address the rapid erosion of the middle class.

The faces of poverty today include many families who possess a strong work ethic but slipped into poverty because of an emergency, such as a broken car or medical issue.

There's even a description for this type of person: Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed, or ALICE. For ALICE people, employment can sometimes push them deeper into poverty because their jobs pay so little or lack benefits. When parents must work, day care becomes an additional financial burden.

“People we talk to, given the choice of being on public assistance and getting a job, it's going to be a job every single time, but it's got to be living-wage employment,” explained Marc Perry of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties.

Some politicians cannot grasp poverty's nuances and unfairly view anyone receiving government assistance as lazy. They point to an example of welfare fraud and make a generalization that everyone “on the dole” is like that.

Instead of trying to eliminate or curtail welfare programs, politicians should make them work better for families, especially for people trying to get ahead and gain new skills through more education and training.

Unemployment programs, for example, are so narrowly focused on getting people back to work that they rarely consider whether people are taking the right kind of work. Too many government programs concentrate on short-term results and ignore the implications of forcing somebody into a dead-end, part-time job.

So long as people demonstrate a commitment to improving their lot in life, government should be willing to keep safety nets in place—always with an eye toward people's long-term employment prospects.

People shouldn't have to decide between food on the table and a job, but this is the unfortunate reality of our so-called economic recovery.

A previous version of this editorial incorrectly attributed Marc Perry's quote to Mary Fanning-Penny of United Way Blackhawk Region.


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