Postcard From Wausau, Wis., Where Safety Nets Aren’t Just Frayed—They’re Busted

Roger Bybee

Former U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at a "Victory 2004" rally on October 7, 2004, in Wausau, Wis.

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 107 in 2000 to 505 in 2009, according to figures compiled by the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

What’s especially striking is that Wausau and its environs represent a relatively compact and supportive community. The AFL-CIO Council and other local organizations have been busy offering assistance with training and helping with the wide variety of problems faced by jobless workers, including referrals to health clinics and food pantries.


But when jobless workers take the incredible step of do-it-yourself dentistry, it suggests that they have reached a level of exhaustion where they’ve given up hope and are tired of reaching out for help. The incessant demands of fighting for your family’s survival seems to have fostered a sense of total futility about reaching out for any assistance that may or may not be available. The long-term, impoverished jobless become convinced that they are totally on their own.

That’s mostly what they’ve been hearing In recent decades: You’re on your own” has been the response of both Republican and conservative Democratic politicians to the urgent needs of workers and the poor. Yet this same ruthless message is never delivered to Gollman Sachs or AIG, who are too big to fail. The harsh discipline of the free market is reserved for those without money or power. 

Thus we have discarded workers in Wausau tearing out their own teeth while bailed-out Wall Street bankers are luxuriating in $150 billion in bonuses for their work in draining the productive economy.


Yet at this moment, seemingly only a few working people seem ready to break out of their isolation and seriously challengethe way corporate power that are destroying Wisconsin’s working-class communities. Moreover, the Obama team’s plans for 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. Roger Bybee writes:

Dear readers: My deepest apologies to you for a grievous error in my June 4 blog. I named the location of the clinic as Janesville, Wis., rather than Wausau, Wis. The error was entirely and exclusively mine. I will do my utmost to avoid such mistakes in the future, because your trust in my credibility is essential. I do wish to stress, howwever, that the story about impoverished and desperate workers trying to pull their own teeth is entirely true.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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