Melissa Berger is a budget and policy analyst at Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. She has been a member of the Madison Plan Commission since 2012.
At the La Follette School's graduation celebration in May 2011, Melissa Berger received a leadership award from the La Follette School Student Association for her work with the Center for Financial Security, the city of Madison's Downtown Coordinating Committee and Capitol Neighborhoods Inc., and for her role in stocking the LSSA snack bar, a primary component of the association's fund-raising strategy.
Berger also was inducted into the Pi Alpha Alpha national honor society in recognition of her academic and professional accomplishments.
For Melissa Berger, local trumps global.
After completing a bachelor's degree in international relations and political science, Berger spent five years working as a real estate agent and grounding herself in Madison and its myriad development and city management processes. She serves on the city of Madison's Downtown Coordinating Committee that advises on developments, improvements and ordinances related to the downtown. She is past president of and continues to serve on Madison's downtown neighborhood association, Capitol Neighborhoods Inc.
These experiences help her to appreciate the effect local action can have. "The global issues I studied as an undergraduate were fascinating," Berger says, "but as I got older and established my roots in Madison, I find I enjoy making a local difference. It's been really fun."
As a student in the Master of Public Affairs program, Berger used her skills in advising people about the buying and selling of houses as program coordinator for the Financial Coaching Institute at the University of Wisconsin Extension's Financial Education Center. The participants are typically financially stable, but they want to make a change in their lives that requires achieving a financial goal. "Our coaches meet with individuals and help them define their financial goals and then work with them to achieve them," Berger says. "Having a coach helps them be accountable to the goals they've set for themselves: Someone is less likely to spend money on a pair of shoes instead of saving it toward buying a house if he has to admit the purchase the next day. It's like dieting; someone is not going to eat a doughnut if they have to confess to a diet coach."
The coaching program is part of a research project La Follette School faculty affiliate J. Michael Collins is conducting into the role of coaching as a way to improve financial literacy. During her second year working with Collins she continued to train coaches for the Financial Education Center as well as coaches in Ohio for an experimental first-time home-buyer program.
Berger's financial coaching involvement is one component of her project assistantship with Collins. She also wrote two chapters for a Financial Education Center curriculum, one for homeowners about preserving and maintaining their homes, the other to help people coming out of a financial crisis.
Berger helped to organize the April 2010 symposium Family Financial Security: Implications for Policy and Practice sponsored by the Center for Financial Security, of which Collins is faculty director. "I worked on the general organization of speakers, promotional materials and the web site, and afterward I helped compile the proceedings for the event," Berger says. "The symposium brought together researchers and practitioners — people who work for banks and credit unions, non-profits, retirement specialists and financial planners — to help share the research and discuss it in an applied manner that hopefully benefits both groups."
To focus her own studies in public affairs, Berger pursued city management and housing policy. She found her first-year prerequisite courses in statistics (PA 818), economics (PA880) and policymaking (PA 874) to be very practical and applicable. Later, policy analysis (PA873) and cost-benefit analysis (PA 881) conveyed valuable frameworks for analysis that she anticipates using. Budgeting (PA 892) and various public management courses provided her a foundation for being able to manage an organization, Berger says.
The advanced public management (PA885) course matched her up with city of Madison comptroller Dean Brasser as a mentor. The 1980 La Follette School alum gave Berger a deeper perspective on city policymaking. "I got to see firsthand how the city budget is created and how public managers interact with the mayor and common council during the budgeting process," Berger says.
The flexibility of the La Follette program also meant Berger could take a course in housing policy through the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. In several of her public affairs courses she completed papers and policy analyses on housing-related topics, especially trends in national housing finance. She particularly enjoyed writing a policy paper on the federal policies that led to the recent mortgage and housing crisis.
For the spring 2011 Public Affairs Workshop, Berger and her group evaluated the city of Milwaukee's system for collecting municipal fees. The group was honored to be asked to work further with the City to help implement some of their recommendations. She did not quite finish her degree in two years, slowing her academic pace a tad after she and her husband had their first child, Costello David Berger, in May 2010, but she plans to finish with an independent study.
"The La Follette School's courses help you look at the world in a different way," she says, "and give you the tools to explain why and how to make it a better place."
Symposium to examine family financial security, February 25, 2010, La Follette School News
Thanks to federal grant, Holden to co-direct financial literacy research, October 13, 2009, La Follette School News