Wisconsin Poverty Report gauges nature and extent of problem statewide

May 4, 2009 By Dennis Chaptman

The first-ever Wisconsin Poverty Report finds that nearly 11 percent of Wisconsin’s population and one in seven children lived in poverty in 2007 and that the need for food — and almost always with it is poverty — has grown substantially as the recession deepened in the last two years.

Based on the growth in Wisconsin unemployment, the researchers estimate that the statewide poverty rate has risen by about 1.8 percent — from 10.8 percent in 2007 to 12.6 percent in 2009.

It also estimates that, given Wisconsin’s rising unemployment rate, poverty rates may have grown by 1.8 percent since 2007.

The report, prepared by the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, aims to contribute to Wisconsin’s anti-poverty goals by describing the nature and extent of the problem.

It will be presented by institute director Timothy Smeeding today (May 4) at a two-day Milwaukee conference called “Building Bridges to Family Economic Success,” a summit led by Gov. Jim Doyle and the state Department of Children and Families.

“We see the Wisconsin Poverty Report as a key starting point for Wisconsin’s anti-poverty plan,” Smeeding says. “The report can be used to target areas of greatest need within our state. Subsequent studies could be used to monitor the anti-poverty effectiveness of programs and policies.”

In addition to analyzing the most recent U.S. census data for poverty levels statewide, the report uses enrollment in the federal Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for low-income individuals.

It found that since 2007, Wisconsin SNAP enrollments grew dramatically, as economic conditions worsened. Enrollments statewide grew by 37 percent through March 2009, rising in every county and demographic region, with some showing increases of more than 50 percent.

Although no high-poverty areas showed growth in SNAP enrollments of 50 percent or more, above-average poverty areas — including an eight-county area around Sparta and a seven-county area near Fond du Lac — did exceed 50 percent growth in enrollment for the food assistance program.

The Wisconsin Poverty Report also found that the Menomonie, Baraboo and Sheboygan regions have lower than average poverty, but large increases in food assistance caseloads. In high-poverty areas like the Superior region, SNAP enrollment grew by 46 percent, and by more than 20 percent in La Crosse and Milwaukee counties.

The only area with low poverty and less than a 40 percent growth in SNAP enrollment is Marathon County.

“Based on these comparisons, there is little doubt that poverty and need are growing all over Wisconsin,” the report states.

Based on the growth in Wisconsin unemployment, the researchers estimate that the statewide poverty rate has risen by about 1.8 percent — from 10.8 percent in 2007 to 12.6 percent in 2009.

According to the report, the three areas with the highest poverty rates for all individuals are Milwaukee County (17.3 percent), a 10-county region in northwestern Wisconsin around Lake Superior (14.4 percent) and Rock County (12.8 percent). On the opposite end of the spectrum is Waukesha County, with a poverty rate of only 3.7 percent.

Milwaukee County showed a wide variance in poverty rates within the county, ranging from 40 percent in central city Milwaukee to 5.4 percent in the northeastern parts of the county, around Brown Deer and Whitefish Bay.

The report also finds that Wisconsin’s child poverty rate, measured at 14.4 percent, ranks 37th nationally and is substantially lower than the national rate of 18 percent. And it is lower than Michigan’s, at 19.4 percent, and Illinois’ 16.6 percent, but higher than the 12 percent rate for Minnesota.

Smeeding says the institute will seek funding to update the report annually and the devise a Wisconsin-specific poverty measure.

“At the Institute for Research on Poverty, we are honored to participate in Wisconsin’s new anti-poverty initiative,” says Smeeding, who notes that IRP researchers have continuously collaborated with state policymakers since its founding in 1966. “I’d say the Wisconsin Idea is alive and well.”