It probably wasn’t the right reaction to the movie, but when I first saw The Matrix , I instinctively sided with Agent Smith. While reading Jason DeParle’s 2004 book “American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare,” the speech Agent Smith gives to a captured Morpheus came flooding back into my mind — albeit with a slight alteration:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.
Joining “American Dream” in progress, we proudly bring to you the story of ghetto-dwelling blacks in Chicago, seeking a better life 90 miles away in Milwaukee. Angie, a black welfare mother, has been told by her cousin Opal that the city of Milwaukee gives much better benefits than Chicago.
Off she went (joining “American Dream” in progress at p. 58):
The Milwaukee ghetto didn’t look like a ghetto, at least not the kind that Angie had in mind when she stepped off the bus in September 1991. Its central city was strictly a low-rise affair. Tumbledown complexes lined the streets, and corner stores announced themselves with hand-lettered “We Accept Food Stamp” signs. While ghettos once teemed, Milwaukee’s vegetated, its vacant lots making the near north side feel almost pastoral.
“Where Have all the Houses Gone?” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel would ask, over an aerial shot of the vernal decay. Toward the ghetto’s western edge, the padlocked factories on 35th Street formed an industrial mausoleum. Three miles east, 3rd Street had died in the fifties and burned in the sixties; renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, it now ran past a black holocaust museum. Between the district’s rough borders, 35th Street to a bit past 3rd, stretched the state’s welfare belt; nine square miles, two shuttered breweries, and about 15,000 families drawing checks.
Angie harrumphed at the weedy vista, but it offered something that Chicago did not, an apartment of her own. From the Family Crisis Center, a shelter just off King Drive, she followed a lead to a “raggerly mansion “a few blocks east. The landlady, Rosalie Allen, had nine units in an old Victorian complex that were newly painted and by Chicago standards unbelievably cheap. Angie took one. Jewell took another. A friend from the shelter took a third. In Chicago, rent alone was $250 more than Angie’s monthly check. In Milwaukee, Angie’s check rose by two-thirds (to $617), while her rent fell in half. Now, she could pay the rent with $250 to spare. Proportionally, Jewell’s welfare check rose even more, by almost three-quarters. She was sufficiently impressed that she called Chicago and told her friend Shon, who was pregnant with her third child and chafing at her mother’s. Shon brought her cousin Lisa, who had just delivered her third child and was eager to escape the projects. Until Mrs. Allen could get the apartments ready, everyone slept at Jewell’s: four women with nine kids and two more on the way. Jewell’s brother Robert moved in. Robert’s friend Lucky came, too. In time, the de facto economics grew even better than they appeared, since elderly Mrs. Allen forgot to collect the rent. While a strange new city might seem foreboding, the house on First Street felt like a freshman dorm: hardly anyone worked; everyone drank; and there were more people stirring at midnight than noon. “We just partied on First Street,” Angie said. “Everybody partied.”
Framed in docudrama clarity, this was just what Wisconsin feared: welfare families – black welfare families – racing in for higher benefits. The aid givers’ fear of attracting aid seekers is a timeless one…But the tensions in the early 1990s were especially pronounced. A run-up in the state’s benefits had left a stark imbalance along the Illinois line and roiled Wisconsin politics for decades. Angie and Jewell had no way to know that the very thing that had drawn them to town, larger welfare checks, was about to turn Milwaukee into the world’s most famous welfare-eradication zone.
In Milwaukee, as in most American cities, the story of welfare was tangled in the story of race. One reason the city had almost no public housing was the belief, as one opponent put it in 1952, that the lack of affordable shelter was “the only thing that has kept ten thousand – aye, twenty thousand – Negroes from coming up here.” A main champion of black interests, the white socialist mayor Frank Zeidler, survived a particularly ugly challenge in 1956 when his critics spread rumors that Zeidler was posting billboards across the South to lure more blacks to town. Time dubbed the campaign “the Shame of Milwaukee,” and it bore a second distinction: forty years before Congress put time limits on welfare, Zeidler’s opponent called for time-limiting stays in public housing, to keep black migrants away.
They came anyway. As late as 1950, blacks composed as little as three percent of the city’s population. Their numbers rose fivefold over the next two decades…
The notion that women like Angie and Jewell move for higher benefits had long been discounted by academics, and nationally the evidence was slight. But the Milwaukee-Chicago situation was unique, both in the proximity of the cities and the difference in what their benefits could buy. In 1986, a state-sponsored study concluded that migration played a “relatively small” part in the Wisconsin’s caseload growth. Yet it also showed that nearly half the applicants in Milwaukee were newcomers from another state. In 1991, another study found that 21 percent of Milwaukee applicants had arrived in the previous three months. Surveyed by strangers, most migrants cited less stigmatized reasons for a move- family ties, better schools – but with people they knew, Angie and Jewell were blunt. “We came up here because the aid in Chicago wasn’t nowhere as much as it was up here,” Jewell said. Angie said the same: “We were figuring out how we were gonna pay our bills.” (p. 58-61)
Chicago and Milwaukee: two cities devastated by the sons and daughters of black slaves from the South. Could this have been a long-term strategy of the defeated Confederates?
No — the unprecedented destructive capabilities of the black race would have even offended avowed white supremacists still clinging to the hopes of a rise of the Confederacy: you couldn’t write a fictional book in the mid-1880s – 1920s that would have been as absurd as the actual history that has unfolded in places like Detroit, Gary (Indiana), Rochester, Chicago, and Milwaukee, courtesy of the black population.
Earlier in the book, we learn that “ Milwaukee, the epicenter of the antiwelfare crusade.. nearly 70 percent of the city’s caseload was black. As the drive to end welfare began, the paradigmatic Milwaukee recipient was a black woman from Chicago whose mother or grandmother had started life in a Mississippi cotton field, a description that fits Angie, Opal, and Jewell…. Given their share of the national population, black families were more than six times as likely as whites to receive a welfare check. Among long-term recipients, the racial imbalance was even more pronounced: nearly seven of the ten long-term recipients were African America. ” (p. 16)
Doing my best to channel Agent Smith, “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here….”
It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out the slight modifications made to Agent Smith’s speech, based on the story told in DeParle’s book.