Rural residents resent ‘short end of the stick’

Rural Wisconsin citizens often feel they are getting “the short end of the stick” in state resource allocation, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Katherine Cramer.

Her study, to be included in an upcoming book, may help to shed light on the current struggles in the State Capitol over issues such as highway funding, a $500 million basketball arena in Milwaukee, reducing taxes on the wealthy and changes in labor laws and social service programs.

Resentment toward certain groups is a key part of understanding the political mix in Wisconsin, she says in a draft chapter of the book. More than a straight-out opposition to government, it is a question of who is benefitting from government programs. Who is deserving?

The resentment often is aimed at public employees themselves, rather than government programs. That helps explain why Gov. Scott Walker’s successful efforts to end most collective bargaining was popular among many in rural areas. The turning tide against public workers also resulted in most state and local government workers being required to carry a greater share of the cost of their long-held employment benefits.

This was not perceived as a victory for small government. “This was a victory for small-town Wisconsinites like themselves,” Cramer writes.

Targets for resentment may include the wealthy, big money or big business, and the undeserving poor, Cramer writes.

“Sometimes these ‘others’ (in the eyes of citizens) were wealthy, but more often they were people who did not work hard enough for the government benefits they enjoy,” she writes.

Cramer interviewed groups across Wisconsin, including those from rural areas, suburban communities and cities. She said she didn’t find overt racism among rural citizens, but heard it in conversations with the other groups.

– Matt Pommer is the dean of Capitol correspondents in Madison. His column is published with permission from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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