'Treading water'
Report: Fewer state children in poverty, but more older residents

By Eileen Mozinski Schmidt - Special to Conley Media

July 5, 2019

MADISON — A study on statewide poverty rates released last week revealed mixed results, with improving childhood poverty rates but increased poverty among Wisconsin’s elderly residents.

The Wisconsin Poverty Measure, which was developed by University of Wisconsin- Madison researchers, dropped from 10.8 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent in 2017, according to the Wisconsin Poverty Report.

That’s up from 9.7 percent in 2015.

“This suggests that progress against poverty in Wisconsin since 2010 has been limited and that we are treading water at this point,” the report said.

Timothy Smeeding, one of the report’s authors, said in the report that the findings suggest the economy is not benefiting workers and families evenly.

“I’ve been conducting this study for 11 years now and I have to say, after more than eight years of nationwide recovery from the end of the Great Recession through 2017, we should see better poverty outcomes,” said Smeeding, Lee Rainwater Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison.

The latest research indicates that the decline of Wisconsin children in poverty is the result of higher earnings by their parents, along with a broader range of tax credits and benefits for families. Also, the measure is counting the income of unmarried partners in the most recent calculations.

More of the state’s older residents, however, are experiencing poverty. The report said this was largely due to increasing out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Insurance premiums, copayments for medical services, prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and uninsured medical costs are expenses that present a significant financial challenge for the low-income elderly, the study said.

The study found the poverty measure was higher than the state average in Milwaukee County, at 17.2 percent, but lower in surrounding counties. It was 4.2 percent in Waukesha County and 3.6 percent in both Washington and Ozaukee counties.

“While unemployment remains low and the economy is generally said to be doing well, housing costs have increased out of proportion to income,” said Brad Paul, executive director of Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, in a recent interview with Conley Media.

He noted there were 19,000 homeless children and youth enrolled in public schools last year, according to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction figures.

“So when we talk about economic well-being we just need to remember that there remains a stubbornly persistent percentage of the population who are routinely cut out of the bargain,” he wrote, in an email.

Discussing recent research from the Federal Reserve Board studying the economic well-being American families, Paul said he believes the federal poverty threshold is “already too low, a little over $20,000 a year for a family of three.”

“In some respects, for poor households, every day is an emergency,” he said.

To help alleviate poverty, Paul advocated for addressing the cost and availability of child care and housing affordability and expanding support for business startups to create jobs in rural areas where economic development lags behind urban and suburban communities.

“There are few anti-poverty initiatives better than access to good jobs,” he said.