Robert Woodson Sr.: Milwaukee Could be Key to New Poverty Approach

Milwaukee and some of its unheralded community groups and violence-fighting programs hold “the key to changing this country,” Robert Woodson Sr., one of America’s most influential voices on detrimental effects of the “poverty industry” and welfare dependency, said in a WPRI-sponsored speech at the Wisconsin Center.

Founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C., Woodson has spent much of the last year taking Congressman Paul Ryan – who is about to release a book entitled Where Do We Go From Here?  – on a “listening and learning” tour of some of America’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Among the organizations they visited in Milwaukee was Running Rebels, a successful community organization founded by Victor Barnett that was featured in a recent edition of WPRI’s Wisconsin Interest. Woodson also spoke of the success of Violence-free Zones he has helped establish in Milwaukee schools, zones that he believes should become a national model.

“I really believe that Milwaukee holds the key to changing this country because civil order is on everybody’s mind,” said Woodson in the Milwaukee speech. “You cannot have economic development, education, unless there’s peace in the streets. And the peace can only come when predators can be converted to ambassadors of peace. And that’s what the groups I named do every day. And collectively, they can be an immune system that can be copied throughout this nation.” Audio

In his June 26 talk, Woodson also spoke at length on detrimental effects of the “poverty industry,” welfare, and lack of political competition in many American neighborhoods. Among his comments:

  • “Rather than concentrating on problems that were solvable, the poverty industry focused on problems that were fundable. And so the priorities as to what would be focused upon were determined by what the funding streams were. And so what happened was that poor people became a commodity.” Audio
  • Policymakers “said it was racist for black families to be held to the same standard as the rest of America.  Welfare moved from a safety net, an ambulance service, to an entitlement to then reparations . . .  In fact they said what we should do is encourage dependency. They called it creative dependency.” Audio
  • “There is this myth that somehow welfare was in response to downturns in the economy. If you . . .  look at the facts, welfare exploded at a time when the economy was exploding. As a consequence families were torn apart. This was part of a deliberate policy on the part of social planners at the time” in the 1960s. “That is why we are in this mess we are in today. It was an assault on the cultural institutions that held these communities together.” Audio
  • “What insulated the black community was the moral and spiritual institutions. That was the glue that kept them together so that they were able to withstand the storms of racism and discrimination. But again in the sixties the influence of these institutions began to get torn asunder, with the consequence of what we have today.” Audio
  • “The problem in our inner cities right now is there is not enough political competition going on. And the way this is promoted isn’t by asking people to join in your philosophy. You must demonstrate to people that you are willing to add value. When you add value to them, they will add value to you . . .  We have got to understand and promote these grassroots leaders.” Audio

Woodson is the winner of both a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and a Bradley Prize, as well as the Presidential Citizens Medal. A one-time civil rights activist and director of the National Urban League’s Administration of Justice Division, he has also served as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Video highlights and audio clips of Woodson’s speech can be found in the multimedia section of


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