Oh look! Rural people!

It’s interesting to see those who don’t realize that most of Wisconsin is actually rural (that is, those who live in greater Madison or Milwaukee) to observe those who made America’s Dairyland America’s Dairyland.

Isthmus, of the People’s Republic of Madison, reports the observations of a UW professor:

At a forum last week hosted by the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, political science professor Katherine Cramer Walsh made a stark observation, culled from five years of conversations with residents around Wisconsin. “In most communities,” she said, “the public workers are the ones who are rich.”

Not “comfortable” or “middle-class,” but rich.

Walsh’s comments came as she offered suggestions for what people on either side of the political divide need to know about the other in order to start mending fences.

For Barrett supporters, she said, “It’s useful to hear that, especially in smaller communities, public employees are the only ones making decent wages and getting insurance and benefits,” she said. For these residents, she added, “it’s a question of public employees versus private employees, not rich versus poor.”

Walsh claims to be a Wisconsin native and the daughter of two teachers. Her bio doesn’t say where in Wisconsin she grew up. Isthmus recounts the tale of Walsh’s visit to northwest Wisconsin in 2008:

She says that a group of loggers, most of whom were self-employed, believed that while schoolteachers may work hard during the year, they have cushy positions. Among the perks: great benefits, health care, summers off and an annual salary of about $50,000 a year. “Nobody in this town makes anywhere near $50,000,” says Walsh, paraphrasing comments she heard. “At the lumber mill, they’re making $20,000 and losing their fingers!”

Walsh says when she probes further, asking why people see a public employee/private employee divide and not a rich/poor divide, she gets stares of disbelief.

It seems to come down to what is tangible and what can be controlled. Private-sector workers, many of whom are struggling, perceive that a large portion of their taxes are going to pay for the salaries of public workers. A cut to public-employee wages and benefits would, at least in theory, mean lower taxes.

But these same people don’t see themselves as having any control over the salaries and benefit packages of CEOs in the private sector, says Walsh. Moreover, they don’t really see anything wrong with top executives making big bucks.

“There’s very little blame on the private market,” says Walsh. “It always comes back to government.”

Well … a large portion of the taxes of private sector workers are going toward public employee salaries. The biggest part of any unit of government’s budget outside state government is employee compensation. For state government, it’s second largest after shared revenue. And of course you know what funds government employee salaries.

Rural people learned well that the phrase “we’re from the government, and we’re here to help you” is a threat, not a greeting. The phrase “Damn Near Russia” as an alternative name for the Department of Natural Resources did not come from Madison.

Walsh helpfully debunks a claim of an ignorant Democratic legislator (but I repeat myself):

State Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) says that Republicans have cultivated this “politics of resentment.”

She says that when she grew up in Green Bay in the 1960s, things were not always easy, but “we didn’t feel that the next-door neighbor was the enemy — that somebody had a job and we should hate them for it.” …

Walsh says the current GOP leadership in the state might have seized on simmering resentment about public workers, but they did not create it.

“The interesting thing to me, being here in Madison and watching events unfold, is knowing that a lot of the sentiments Gov. Walker and the Republicans tapped into were not manufactured, but were out there well before the governor [took office].”

By the way, if you’re wondering about Walsh’s advice to Walker supporters, it was this: “It would be helpful for them to sit down with public employees — to hear that they are concerned about the future, the financial well-being of their community, and that they also work hard.”

That last sentence is sort of a non sequitur. Walsh’s first two points about concern for the future and “the financial well-being of their community” is belied by the flood of government-employee retirements in the past year. (No private-sector employee jumped into retirement in their 50s over the cost of their benefits.) I never claimed government employees, particularly teachers, don’t work hard. Conservatives do not further their cause by harping about teachers’ summer vacations; looking at the number of hours a teacher works over the entire year is more to the point.

But private-sector workers also work hard, and for less pay and benefits. Small business owners work longer hours than their employees, pay 100 percent of their benefits, and have their entire financial fortunes tied up in their businesses. And you would have to look hard during Recallarama to find anyone with a title at the Wisconsin Education Association Council or AFSCME, or anyone with a D after their name, to acknowledge those facts. (For that matter, I wonder how many Ds from Madison or Milwaukee have ever milked a cow or shoveled manure … other than what comes out their caucus, that is.)


7 thoughts on “Oh look! Rural people!

  1. Steve:

    Anecdotes are fines as long as they don’t contradict your sense of the truth. Here is my experience and let’s see how it reflects your perception.

    I grew up in northern WI in a town with paper mills (both union and non-union) The mill rats were the rich folks in town and still are. If both spouses in a family worked there they had the biggest house and most cars. I could names dozens of kids I went to high school with that went to the mill at 19-20 years of age and retired at 52-55 with all the money they needed. They didn’t need any education (many didn’t finish high school), experience or special skills.

    I, on the other hand, went off to college and got one of those cushy public jobs were I needed an advanced degree and professional certifications. I’m still working, have received a cut in pay the last 4 years, and will never see a raise for the rest of my career. But I don’t envy those mill rats. They made choices just like I did. But I certainly don’t appreciate you and your ilk constant pushing the envy and “have vs have not” button at every opportunity You are only fanning the fire of envy and jealousy.

    PS: My family is originally from a small town in far norther WI where logging is the main industry (feeding those paper mills, you know). Those loggers could have gone to school and come back as a teacher and been the “rich” folk in town. But they chose the chain saw and skidder life. And do you think the income for a logger (at least a good one) is really $20K ? That is nonsense.

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