Poverty Reaches Highest Level in Decades in Wisconsin
By Karen Herzog
Poverty in Wisconsin hit its highest level in 30 years during the five-year period ending in 2014, even as the nation's economy was recovering from the Great Recession, according to a trend analysis of U.S. census data just released by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers.
The number of Wisconsin residents living in poverty averaged 13% across that post-recession time frame -- the highest since 1984, according to the analysis by UW-Madison's Applied Population Laboratory. In 1984, the poverty rate peaked at 15.5% as the nation was recovering from a double-dip recession.
The UW-Madison analysis dovetails with an unrelated study that identified pockets of the country faring worse as the economic recovery gains some traction, released Thursday by a national nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C.
That study, by the Economic Innovation Group, found the gap between the richest and poorest American communities widening, and ranked Milwaukee the seventh most distressed city in America, with 52% of the population considered economically distressed.
Poverty increased more dramatically across Wisconsin than in many other states, though 46 of the 50 states saw a significant increase in total population living in poverty between the five-year periods ending in 2009 and 2014, according to the UW-Madison analysis.
A five-year rolling average is considered more reliable and precise data than a year-to-year comparison. Five-year estimates also are the only census data available at the county and neighborhood level; one-year estimates are available for the state as a whole and the city of Milwaukee.
Using the five-year measure, poverty went up in both urban and rural parts of Wisconsin. It went up at every level of educational achievement, and across the employment spectrum.
Perhaps most significant, the poverty gap between blacks and whites grew here as the average gap was flat across the nation. The state's child poverty rate also went up significantly, fueling concerns about the future for many of the state's youngest residents.
"There is some good evidence that living in poverty and experiencing issues like food and housing insecurity can cause changes in the brain that can lead to behavioral issues and low performance in school, as well as chronic disease later in life," said Malia Jones, an assistant scientist and social epidemiologist at UW-Madison's Applied Population Laboratory.
It's no coincidence that two-thirds of students who cannot read above a fourth-grade level end up either in prison or on welfare, several literacy studies have shown.
Question on data
A UW-Milwaukee associate professor of economics contacted by the Journal Sentinel questioned the accuracy of the analysis because he believes the 2014 poverty rate Jones used was incorrect, and skewed the results higher.
Jones used a 2014 poverty rate of 13.3% from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which provides detailed information about the population and workforce. Scott Adams, the economics professor and chair of UWM's economics department, pointed to a 2014 poverty rate of 10.9% from the Current Population Survey, considered a primary source for labor statistics.
Jones said she chose the American Community Survey because it's a larger sampling.
The years leading up to a recession and recession recovery naturally would look different, said Adams, who served as a senior economist for labor, welfare and education on the president's Council of Economic Advisers at the end of George W. Bush's presidency and the start of Barack Obama's first term.
He argued that poverty after the early 1980s recession was much worse than poverty after the most recent recession.
Jones said poverty is rising now because those at the bottom of the economic totem pole aren't benefiting from economic improvement. "Inequality is certainly worse now than in 1984," she said.
The growing poverty gap between blacks and whites in Wisconsin also caught Adams' eye.
"What it reflects is the black population in Wisconsin was left completely out of the recovery," he said.
The racial poverty gap, coupled with Milwaukee's high ranking among the most distressed American cities, "signals we have tremendous concerns," Adams said.
"Poverty's not a Milwaukee issue; it's a Wisconsin issue," said Charles McLimans, president and CEO of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, which works with a network of pantries, soup kitchens, meal programs and homeless shelters to distribute food in 36 counties in eastern Wisconsin.
"Because Milwaukee is such a segregated city and problems are concentrated in southeastern Wisconsin, people outside (the area) don't see and fully understand the issue," McLimans said. "This certainly helps to shine a light on it."
The Applied Population Laboratory analysis found:
-- Poverty went up significantly in 31 of 72 Wisconsin counties, including 11 of the 15 most populous counties, during the most recent five-year span. Estimates show about 738,000 Wisconsin residents were living in poverty during the 2010-'14 period, compared to 605,000 in the 2005-'09 time frame.
-- Nearly one in five Wisconsin children was living in poverty during the 2010-'14 time frame -- 239,000 children in all, or 18.5% of all children. That's up dramatically from 14.6% in 2005-'09, and represents another 50,000 children.
Only 10 states had faster rates of increase in child poverty than Wisconsin.
-- Twenty-five of Wisconsin's 72 counties had a significant increase in child poverty. No county had a significant decrease. The highest childhood poverty county remains Menominee, which went up from 35.1% to 44.8% of residents under age 18 living in poverty.
Milwaukee County, the state's largest urban center, went from 26.4% to 33% child poverty and is now tied for second highest with Sawyer County in northern Wisconsin, where Hayward is located.
Other Wisconsin counties with child poverty rates above the national average (21.9%) for 2010-'14 included: Kenosha, Rock, Vilas, Forest, Adams, Clark, Vernon, Monroe, Burnett, Ashland, Rusk and Jackson.
-- Racial disparities in poverty are bigger here than in the U.S. as a whole, and are growing faster. The poverty gap between African-Americans and whites grew 4 percentage points in Wisconsin, while the national average did not grow, Jones said.
Wisconsin's poverty rate was 39% for blacks and 28% for Latinos, compared with 11% for whites -- significantly wider gaps than in the rest of the country. Nationally, the analysis reported the gap between blacks and whites was 16 percentage points, and for Latinos and whites, 13 percentage points.
-- Significant changes in poverty occurred among adults at every level of educational achievement in Wisconsin.
For those with less than a high school education, poverty rose from 20.5% to 24.5%. The impact was mitigated by a decrease in total population with low educational attainment, which dropped from 380,000 to 337,000.
For those with a high school education, poverty rose from 8.9% to 11%. It increased from 6.6% to 8.9% among those with some college. Poverty also touched those with bachelor's degrees or more, rising from 3% in 2005-'09 to 3.6% in 2010-'14.
-- Poverty cut across various levels of employment in Wisconsin.
Among the unemployed, poverty increased from 27% to 31.6%. The number of unemployed adults grew by about 35,000 people between the five-year periods ending in 2009 and 2014.
Increases were also seen among the working poor. Among employed adults, poverty rose from 6% to 7%. It increased among those employed full-time from 2% to 2.4%.
UW-Madison's Applied Population Lab is housed in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
UW-Madison's Institute for Research on Poverty each year produces a single-year census data comparison called the Wisconsin Poverty Report. That report is due later this spring.
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