Who is poor in Wisconsin?

About 10% (10.2%) of the Wisconsin population was poor in 2017, as measured by the Wisconsin Poverty Measure (WPM) developed by IRP researchers. The map below shows the counties in the state where the poverty rate was higher, lower, or similar to the statewide average.

WPM county-/multicounty-level poverty rates vary a lot in relation to the overall state rate of 10.2 percent: 2017. Source: Institute for Research on Poverty tabulations using 2017 American Community Survey public use data.

Map. 2017 WPM county-level poverty rates vary substantially in relation to the overall state rate of 10.2%.
Source: Researchers’ tabulations using 2008–2017 American Community Survey data.

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Wisconsin Poverty Report (data from 2017)

The Wisconsin Poverty Measure (WPM) state poverty rate declined to 10.2% percent in 2017, a significant decrease in statewide poverty from 10.8% in 2016, as reported in the annual Wisconsin Poverty Report: Treading Water in 2017 by Timothy M. Smeeding and Katherine A. Thornton.

Released in June 2019, the Wisconsin Poverty Report charts the antipoverty effects—for the overall population, for children, and for the elderly—of taxes, SNAP, housing programs, and energy assistance from 2008 through 2017. The report also shows the poverty-increasing effects of work expenses such as childcare, and out-of-pocket medical costs for the same time period.

Overall Poverty in Wisconsin

Using the WPM—which counts market income, cash benefits, and noncash benefits such as FoodShare and tax credits such as the EITC—overall poverty in the state in 2017 was 10.2 percent, a significant decrease from 2016.

For Wisconsinites overall, income and safety net programs just barely offset expenses and reduced the overall Wisconsin poverty rate by 0.1 percentage points using the Wisconsin Poverty Measure in 2017.

Child Poverty in Wisconsin

About 10 percent (10.1%) of children in Wisconsin were in poverty in 2017 as measured by the WPM, down from 12.0 percent in 2016. Researchers believe that gains in market income through increased employment and earnings helped drive down child poverty in 2017.

For Wisconsin children, income and safety net programs offset family expenses and reduced the official Wisconsin child poverty rate by almost 4 percentage points using the Wisconsin Poverty Measure in 2017.

Elderly Poverty in Wisconsin

More than 9 percent (9.5%) of elderly Wisconsinites were in poverty in 2017 as measured by the WPM. Social Security benefits keep many elders, who have little or no market income, out of poverty. Social Security benefits are included in both the official poverty measure and the Wisconsin Poverty Measure.

For Wisconsin elderly, out-of-pocket medical expenses likely exceeded income and safety net program assistance and increased the official Wisconsin elderly poverty rate by 2.4 percentage points using the Wisconsin Poverty Measure in 2017.

Wisconsin Poverty Measure Key Takeaways

  • The Wisconsin poverty rate for the overall population fell to 10.2 percent in 2017, a significant decrease from 10.8 percent in 2016.
  • The state’s growing economy has had little effect on the poverty rate as rising costs of living, especially in the areas of childcare and medical care, offset gains in earnings and employment. This left Wisconsin’s poverty rate in 2017 about the same as it was in 2010.
  • Poverty fell for children but rose for elders. Child poverty fell to 10.1 percent in 2017, down from 12.0 percent in 2016. Conversely, elder poverty rose to 9.5 percent in 2017, up from 9.0 percent in 2016.
  • Although safety net benefits, especially Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (called FoodShare in Wisconsin) and refundable tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or EITC, continued to play an important role in poverty reduction, these effects continued to decline in 2017. Rising medical and work expenses largely cancelled out antipoverty effects of safety net for the overall poverty rate.
  • Milwaukee County (17.2%), and the Eau Claire/South Chippewa county area (14.4%) both had poverty rates significantly higher than the state average.
  • Meanwhile, 27 counties in 11 county and multicounty areas have poverty rates that are significantly lower than the statewide rate, including the counties of Washington and Ozaukee (3.6%, the lowest), Waukesha (4.2%), and Outagamie (5.0%).

Poverty Rates By County Or Multicounty Area

A significant strength of the WPM is its ability to portray poverty across regions within the state. In 2017, researchers found overall statewide poverty rates hide substantial variations in poverty across Wisconsin regions, as shown in Table 1.

Researchers’ categorization of substate areas includes 13 large counties and 15 multicounty areas that encompass the remaining areas of the state. While some of the multicounty areas comprise only two counties (e.g., Sauk and Columbia), others require as many as 10 of the more-rural counties to reach a sufficient sample size to obtain reliable estimates.

Table 1. Wisconsin WPM Poverty Rates by County or Multicounty Area with Upper and Lower Bounds, 2017

Wisconsin Poverty Measure (%) Confidence Interval: Lower Bound (%) Confidence Interval: Upper Bound (%) Difference from State Average
Milwaukee 17.2 15.7 18.6 Higher
Dane (Madison) 11.2 9.0 13.3 NS
Waukesha 4.2 3.2 5.1 Lower
Brown (Green Bay) 10.1 8.1 12.0 NS
Racine 10.3 7.7 12.9 NS
Kenosha 9.1 6.4 11.8 NS
Rock (Janesville) 12.8 8.8 16.8 NS
Marathon (Wausau) 8.7 5.9 11.5 NS
Sheboygan 6.8 4.0 9.6 Lower
La Crosse 11.6 8.5 14.7 NS
Outagamie (Appleton) 5.0 3.5 6.4 Lower
Winnebago (Oshkosh) 11.1 8.0 14.2 NS
Walworth (Whitewater) 7.2 5.2 9.3 Lower
Multicounty Area
Washington & Ozaukee (West Bend) 3.6 2.2 5.1 Lower
Sauk & Columbia (Baraboo) 10.0 6.6 13.4 NS
Dodge & Jefferson 7.4 5.6 9.2 Lower
Manitowoc & Kewaunee 6.1 4.4 7.9 Lower
Fond du Lac & Calumet 6.9 4.1 9.7 Lower
St. Croix & Dunn 5.2 3.2 7.2 Lower
Eau Claire & Chippewa (South) 14.4 11.6 17.1 Higher
Barron, Polk, Clark & Chippewa (North) 12.2 9.2 15.2 NS
Marinette, Oconto, Door & Florence 9.5 7.2 11.8 NS
Central Sands—Wood, Portage, Juneau & Adams 10.4 8.0 12.7 NS
Oneida, Lincoln, Vilas, Langlade & Forest 6.4 4.7 8.1 Lower
Grant, Green, Iowa, Richland & Lafayette 8.7 6.7 10.7 NS
East Central Wisconsin 10.0 8.1 12.0 NS
West Central Wisconsin—Northern Mississippi Region 8.1 6.6 9.6 Lower
Northwest Wisconsin 11.0 9.0 13.0 NS
State Total 10.2 9.7 10.7
Source: IRP tabulations of 2017 American Community Survey public use data.
Notes: NS = Not statistically significant. In this analysis, each region’s difference from the state average was assessed as not statistically significant if the 90% confidence intervals for each region’s statistics and the state’s overall statistics overlap.