University Poverty Experts Present Research to Governor Walker's Future of the Family Commission

April 11, 2016

MADISON—Faculty at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison presented research on changes in family structure and economic opportunity and their effects on poverty and inequality, along with promising strategies to strengthen families and boost opportunity, with a new Wisconsin State commission on the family.

Governor Scott Walker created the Future of the Family Commission in January 2016 to discuss challenges facing Wisconsin families and prepare policy recommendations to address them.

Headed by Eloise Anderson, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF), the commission comprises a diverse group of researchers and citizens who are exploring the challenges families face and different approaches to help strengthen and support them.

On the agendas for the initial commission meetings were leaders from the interdisciplinary Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) at UW–Madison—which has received continuous federal support since 1966 to examine the causes, consequences, and cures of poverty.

IRP Director and Professor of Social Work Lawrence Berger and former IRP Director and Lee Rainwater Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics Timothy Smeeding presented what the latest research evidence reveals about the struggles of poor and low-income families in Wisconsin.

Berger spoke to the commission about family complexity and instability—high rates of nonmarital childbearing, divorce, and cohabitation, as well as parents having children with multiple partners—and how that complexity influences family functioning and child and family well-being.

He noted that births to unmarried mothers have doubled since 1980; many children face multiple changes in family structure by age 9; that parents, especially fathers, often have multiple parenting roles—biological, step-parent, resident, nonresident, custodial, and noncustodial, a trend that is especially high among families of color; and that social-parent families are more likely to break up than biological families.

Berger's presentation ended with a discussion of how current policy addresses the realities of today's complex families and research-based policy recommendations. Recommendations include preventing family complexity by making contraceptives available to women who want family-planning services; and providing supports, benefits, and tax credits to noncustodial parents, and coordinating with the criminal justice system to accommodate incarcerated parents.

In his talk, Smeeding told commission members what is known about the changing American family and socioeconomics in the state of Wisconsin, based in part on his research using the Wisconsin Poverty Measure (WPR), which he developed. The WPR is a more state-specific, timely, and precise measure of poverty than the federal approach.

Smeeding linked changing composition of American families to changing family economics, largely driven by a decline in median wages since the 1970s, with wages remaining essentially flat for those with bachelor's degrees or no college. In Wisconsin, Smeeding noted, there is a 75% rate of parents going on to have children with new partners; 41% of births are out of wedlock and 60% of those births are unplanned; and the City of Milwaukee has extreme racial and income disparities and very high rates of child poverty (the rate of African American child poverty in Milwaukee is 40%).

Smeeding's evidence-based policy recommendations include reducing unplanned and nonmarital births; promoting long-activing reversible contraceptives; promoting marriage; increase wages to promote family stability; and reduce incarceration rates.

Future of the Family Commission agendas, materials, and notes are available on the DCF website.

The Commission meets bimonthly and will present policy recommendations to Governor Walker in December 2016.


—Deborah Johnson,, (608) 262-7779