Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Antipoverty programs ease pain of recession, Wisconsin Poverty Measure finds

Expanded tax credits and food assistance programs helped to shield Wisconsin's poorest residents from the worst effects of the recession, the third Wisconsin Poverty Report shows.

Report Online

The basic results of the project can be found in IRP's Wisconsin Poverty Report: Were Antipoverty Policies Effective in 2009? More detailed technical reports are also online.

Prepared by researchers at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the report takes a broader measure of the needs and resources of Wisconsin's poor than the official federal poverty measure to better determine the impact of state and federal policies.

Under the Wisconsin Poverty Measure, 11.5 percent of the state's population was poor in 2009 – nearly identical to the 2008 level. Meanwhile, the official federal poverty rate for Wisconsin jumped from 10.2 percent to 12.3 percent. The contrast is even sharper for child poverty, which jumped nearly 4 percentage points under the official measure between 2008 and 2009, but showed no significant change under the Wisconsin measure.

"These differences are striking considering the Wisconsin measure has a higher poverty threshold than the official line," says public affairs professor Timothy Smeeding, a report co-author and IRP director. "The contrast between the rates demonstrates that antipoverty programs and policies are largely working in the state."

The report compares poverty in county and multi-county regions across Wisconsin. Milwaukee County remained the poorest in the state with poverty up from 18.8 percent in 2008 to 19.6 percent in 2009 under the Wisconsin measure. Meanwhile, the report showed four county areas of the state with rates under 6 percent: Columbia/Sauk/Dodge counties (5.4 percent), Waukesha County (5.6 percent), Ozaukee/Washington counties (5.6 percent), and Marathon County (5.7 percent).

"For Wisconsin, this measure provides a more detailed view of poverty and shows how well public programs such as FoodShare, refundable tax credits, work-related expenses, and health-care protection under BadgerCare are helping meet the basic needs of Wisconsin families," Smeeding says. "By analyzing both the policies in place to support families and the specific costs of getting by in our state, the Wisconsin measure tells us how families are faring in tough economic times and quantifies the difference public policies make in the lives of those in need."

Smeeding, Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, IRP researcher and 2010 La Follette School alum Joanna Young Marks, and IRP programmer analyst Katherine Thornton prepared the report.

"In keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, the new measure serves our partners in government by revealing the effects of public policies on poverty, including the impact of temporary antipoverty policies during the recession," Marks says. "The measure also serves as a model for other states seeking a more meaningful measure to assess poverty and policies. As this report shows, public policy can offset increased need during periods of recession."