On either side of Memorial Drive, one after another, are relics of better days: massive brick factories now closed, sprawling warehouses deserted, empty lots, boarded-up buildings. Rusted water towers and aged smokestacks rise from industrial rooftops, like sentries standing guard long after they served their duty. Racine Steel Casings, Case Tractors, Sealed Air, Jacobsen Textron, Golden Books, Young Radiator—once-great employers, all gone, but not forgotten by locals.
“We were known for making things here,” said Democratic State Representative Cory Mason, a fifth-generation Racine resident who has represented his neighbors in the Wisconsin Statehouse for 10 years. “You could graduate from high school, get a union job, and send your kids to college. For most of the 20th century, that was what Racine was like.”
But in recent decades, as trade deals shipped most of the middle-class jobs overseas, recessions hit, and labor protections deteriorated, that kind of shared prosperity vanished. Now many residents work in the service industry and can barely get by.
As a result, more than 21 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty, and it cuts across demographics—including 22 percent of whites, 23 percent of African-Americans, and 28 percent of Hispanics. Racine has the highest unemployment rate among large cities in the state. The school district serves approximately 20,000 students, and between 1,000 and 1,500 are homeless for all or part of the year.
Racine also lies in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district, and Mason suggested that Ryan doesn’t seem to adapt his agenda to the hardship people are experiencing.
“Congressman Ryan can’t have it both ways,” he said. “He can’t be the guy for the trade deals that move the middle class jobs away and be the guy who’s opposed to raising the minimum wage, and then say that we need to take safety-net programs away.”
Kelly Gallaher, a community organizer with Racine’s Community for Change, put it a little more bluntly: “How do you take away half of our manufacturing jobs and then say poverty is some moral failing?”
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On Saturday morning, in Speaker Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, a dozen people lined up outside of Echo food bank a half-hour before it opened.
Janesville plays a central role in Ryan’s rhetoric. In a recent commencement speech he delivered at Carthage College, he said, “I live with my family in Janesville. Every weekend I am here with my family. Yesterday was turkey hunting and track meet and then dinner at my mom’s.”