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Expert: Wisconsin wages can’t lift some out of poverty

Outlined map of wisconsin with transparent background of US dollar banknotes

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin should raise the minimum wage and provide more financial and practical help for families who continue to struggle, despite record low unemployment, according to the co-author of a report on poverty in the state.

The June 24 Institute for Research on Poverty report found Wisconsin’s poverty rate has remained stagnant for nearly a decade, fluctuating between 10% and 11% from 2008 to 2017, Wisconsin Public Radio reported. The institute is part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate sat at a record low of 2.8% in May, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate stayed at or below 3% for most of 2018.

Timothy Smeeding, a professor at UW-Madison’s LaFollette School of Public Affairs, co-wrote the poverty report. He said work alone isn’t enough to lift individuals and families out of poverty.

“People are working more, parents in particular are working more, and their market income poverty has started to improve, but work alone is never going to be enough for a single parent with a couple of kids,” he said.

He recommended that Wisconsin officials raise the minimum wage and boost state support for child care and transportation.

The institute determined Wisconsin’s poverty threshold for a two-adult, two-child household to be $27,241. It is higher than the federally defined poverty level for a family of four of $25,750 because Wisconsin has a low cost of living. The institute developed its own metric by weighing families’ income, public benefits and tax credits against expenses such as child and health care.

According to the data, roughly 17% of Milwaukee County residents are living in poverty. Eau Claire and Chippewa counties had the next highest poverty rates, both around 14%.

“We all know that we’ve got a big problem in central city Milwaukee, a problem (that) has to do with incarceration, with race, with violence, with trauma,” Smeeding said. “We really need to deal with that if we’re going to solve the poverty problem in our state.”

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