Wisconsin Poverty Report

Julia B. Isaacs and
Julia B. Isaacs Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Urban Institute
Timothy M. Smeeding
Timothy M. Smeeding Director, Institute for Research on Poverty, and A & S Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics; Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison

May 11, 2009


The State of Wisconsin has a long tradition of leading the nation in social policy, from being the first state to establish worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance laws in the early 1900s to being the architects of welfare reform in the mid-1990s, an action that has inspired similar approaches across the nation and in Europe. Wisconsin has set the standard for the collaboration of policymakers and researchers nationwide in tackling the toughest social problems. This approach, the “Wisconsin Idea,” involves collaboration and innovation between policymakers at the local, state, and national levels and University of Wisconsin researchers. More recently, efforts to improve the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens has benefited from the involvement of nonprofit, faith-based, business, and community-based organizations that have joined the fray. Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a deep recession with little light at the end of the tunnel, and we know that all Wisconsinites are feeling the pain. Many are struggling to feed their families, and many are losing their jobs with poor prospects for finding work. Policy efforts are underway to address the current recession, as are efforts to fight structural poverty and unequal opportunity more generally.

But if we are to fight poverty and promote opportunity, we need to define the problem—we need to know where poverty is within our state, whether it is growing or receding, how poverty in Wisconsin compares to neighboring states, and how severe income poverty has become of late in Wisconsin. Moreover, we need to be able to evaluate the impact of our antipoverty policies on measured income poverty so we know what works—and what doesn’t work.

In order to achieve these goals—and to provide policy guidance as well as establish a key social indicator of poverty so that we can join together as a society to reduce the problem—the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP), the major federal poverty research institute for the past 43 years, is supporting the State of Wisconsin’s antipoverty initiative by submitting this report on poverty and disadvantage within our state. We expect that this is just the first step in establishing where poverty is and how need is growing within Wisconsin.

The timing of this report is driven by several considerations. First and foremost, by Governor Doyle’s Summit on “Building Bridges to Economic Success,” where, for example, income supports, job creation, and earnings adequacy will be discussed. Wisconsin, like many other states and large cities, is taking it upon itself to play an active role in fighting poverty (Levin-Epstein and Gorzelany, 2008).

Second, the timing of this report is driven by the availability of high-quality data from the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/FoodShare program records, which in concert can help us pinpoint poverty and economic need and where it is growing fastest within our state. And finally, interest in the report is being driven by the severity of the current recession and its impact on the Midwest in general and Wisconsin in particular. Over the past year (March 2008–March 2009), unemployment rates have nearly doubled at the state level, reaching 9.4 percent last month. Need-based SNAP/FoodShare rolls are also skyrocketing, as we will see below.

We hope that Wisconsin Poverty Report readers find the information it provides useful. We intend to seek funding to broaden and deepen our examination of Wisconsin poverty, and to improve the Wisconsin measure of poverty and our ability to identify antipoverty program effects, to be disseminated in an annual report on the State of Poverty in Wisconsin. In a longer report we will also be able to expound the types of vulnerable and at-risk populations, including the disabled, the elderly, and single-parent families, and also to explore differences in race, gender, and ethnicity. In this, first report, we examine only overall poverty and poverty amongst children.

View the full report »