Postcard From Wausau, Wis.: Where Safety Nets Aren’t Just Frayed—They’re Busted
By Roger Bybee
Editor’s note: This is article was corrected (see below) and updated with new material on June 8.
For workers in Wisconsin, the Great Recession has meant a brutal wave of plant closings, Depression-era levels of unemployment and a toll on physical and mental health that cannot yet be fully measured.
Frankly, it’s been a depressing experience documenting the pain caused by the 1-2 punch of the Wall Street meltdown and corporate relocations from cities across my home state. There have been episodic expressions of resistance to the corporate assault in Wisconsin, with impressive but ultimately unsuccesful campaigns in Kenosha and Kimberly against plant closings. But why aren’t we seeing non-stop massive resistance to this wave of job destruction?
Perhaps shedding some light on this question is a shocking syndrome among people desperately in pain and in need of dental care in Wausau, Wis., as recounted by Laura Scudiere, director of a local community medical and dental clinic there. A central Wisconsin industrial city of 38,000, Wausau’s economic base has been hard-hit by the downturn in housing and job relocations to Mexico. Unemployment stands at 12.4% in the city.
Scudiere, executive director of the Bridge Clinic in Wausau says there has been a 72% increase in the demand for clinic services between 2005 and 2009. However, this figure only hints at the grotesque severity of the cases and the level of desperation experienced by patients, as recounted by Scudiere:
"Every week we run into people who tried to pull their own teeth… It’s like a Third World country when it comes to dental health. We see 16-year olds who need dentures."
Think of what Scudiere’s conmment reveals: people feeling so abandoned by social institutions that they believe themselves hopelessly left to their own desperate and crude efforts. Stunningly, they seek to individually overcome the most intense pain by themselves—while of course inflicting still more pain.
And it also means young people whose teeth have been allowed to rot due to lack of consistent professional care because of their poverty. Apart from causing peristent and severe health problems, this lack of dental treatment will condemn them to a life-long sense of inferiority condemning them and will also limited their job opportunities.
Wausau—like many other Wisconsin cities—is suffering with the high jobless rate reflecting the city’s reliance on wood-processing and products related to home-building, which predictably took a major nosedive with the plunge in the housing market. Meanwhile. a major area employer, Greenheck Fan Corp., has been laying off workers in Wausau while expanding its low-wage Saltillo, Mexico plant.
The outcomes of the economic downturn in Wausau are all too predictable. The percentage of schoolkids eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches has climbed to 43%. Home foreclosures soared in Wausau and the surrounding Marathon County from revitalizing these communities are "virtually the same as George W. Bush’s," as one economic development expert told me.
As a result, we see isolation and powerlessness among the victims of our increasingly brutal economic system, most tragically and vividly exhibited when people pick up pliers to try to extract their own teeth.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the Bridge Clinic is in Janesville, Wis., rather than Wausau. It has been corrected throughout, and all references to Janesville and its economy have been replaced with information relating to Wausau. Here is a note from Roger Bybee:
Dear readers: My deepest apologies to you for a grievous error in my June 4 blog. I named the location as Janesville, Wis. rather than Wausau, Wis. First, let me stress that the story about the impoverished and desperate workers trying to pull their own teeth is entirely true.
Again, my sincerest apologies to you. The error was entirely and exclusively mine. I will do my utmost to avoid such careless mistakes in the future because your trust in my credibility is essential.