The doors at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul food pantry on Fish Hatchery Road don’t open for another 30 minutes, but a line has already formed.
They wait quietly, for the most part, this rainbow coalition of all ages: African-American grandmothers, Latino families, young women with pierced tongues, disabled seniors and working fathers.
What they have in common is poverty. Once a month, with a valid photo ID, clients get enough groceries to last a week.
“As my kids get older, I just keep having to cook more, so every bit helps,” says Belinda Washington, 44, who has four children at home ages 4 to 17.
A Chicago native, Washington moved to Madison 17 years ago and lives in the Lake Point neighborhood off West Broadway on the city’s south side. Her resume includes food service, catering and factory work but she’s been unemployed since her youngest was born. “I keep applying but the jobs are hard to come by,” she says.
Danny Pilgrim, 37, has a part-time job at Einstein Brothers Bagels in Madison but had his hours reduced recently. Now, he’s visiting the food pantry with his wife. “What can I say? We need the groceries,” explains the father of three.
Being poor, hungry or unemployed is a world far removed for many in Wisconsin’s capital city, where arguments over passenger rail, Badger sports or high-rise hotels can dominate the news.
But the reality is Madison’s poverty rate is climbing — rising nine times faster than the rate of other U.S. cities, according to a new report from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
Since 2000, the poverty rate (defined as a family of four with an income under $21,800) in Madison has jumped from 15 percent to 17.7 percent. That’s one in every six residents.
Perhaps more significantly, the city has seen an explosion in the number of low-income children as measured by participation in subsidized or free-lunch programs. One of every two students in the Madison Metropolitan School District is now considered “low income” using the lunch standard. In 1990, just one in five Madison school kids qualified.
“It’s very much a part of the changing demographics in the district,” says Madison school Superintendent Daniel Nerad.
And the overall picture is not improving. In its report, Brookings predicts Madison will likely see its poverty rate jump another 1.1 percent this year, surpassing the average poverty rate for the 95 largest U.S. cities.
It’s a complicated issue. Certainly, the slumping economy has strained many family budgets. Others point to overwhelmed social services and a lack of job-training programs. Some blame an influx of low-income residents from the big cities of Chicago or Milwaukee.
But one thing is clear to Elizabeth Kneebone, senior researcher at Brookings, one of the nation’s oldest think tanks: “Madison has historically done better than a lot of places but we are seeing a significant increase in poverty,” she says.
Measuring poverty in college towns can be somewhat misleading, researchers caution, since many students live below the poverty line and are counted by the U.S. Census Bureau as officially “poor” even if they come from wealthy families.
But Kneebone says students don’t account for the growing number of poor residents in Madison. According to the American Community Survey, an annual estimate from the Census Bureau, Madison added nearly 8,400 residents living below the poverty line between 2000 and 2008, a 29 percent increase.
Kneebone’s study, “The Suburbanization of Poverty,” shows poverty rising fastest outside America’s inner cities, as higher housing and transportation costs drive lower-income people to the decaying “first ring” suburbs. But in the Midwest, both cities and suburbs are getting poorer, largely because of the recession and heavy job losses in the Rust Belt states.
“Of all the regional economies, the Midwest has been hit hardest,” says Kneebone.
There’s little argument the recession has pushed more Wisconsin families into poverty. The state’s overall poverty rate has climbed from 8.7 to 10.7 percent since 2000. The national rate also increased, from 12.4 to 13.1 percent over that same period.
The rising poverty rates in the Badger State come as no surprise to Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, the nation’s original poverty research center, established in 1966 on the UW-Madison campus.
Smeeding last year co-authored the first-ever Wisconsin Poverty Report, which showed one in seven Wisconsin children living in poverty even before the economic downturn took full hold.
“Wisconsin and the Midwest in the late 1990s were actually leading the nation in poverty reduction,” says Smeeding. “But since 2000, we’ve gone about 179 degrees in the other direction. Now, we’re a manufacturing state in a manufacturing recession.”
As a result, poverty is soaring in places like Rock County, the Sparta region and the northern tier of Wisconsin along Lake Superior. Smeeding notes that in 2003, the city of Milwaukee accounted for about half the food stamp caseload in the entire state; today, its share has fallen to a third.
“The recession seems to be hitting all over the place although my general impression is Madison is not doing that badly,” says Smeeding, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs and a national leader on poverty research.
Smeeding says university towns tend to provide enough part-time jobs such as bartending or restaurant work for young people who don’t yet have a family to support. “College kids will always find their way,” he says. “But I’m more worried about the guy with only a high school degree or less.”
Others paint a more dire picture. They point to the percentage of poor kids in the Madison schools, the increased complaints about crime and the number of businesses locating new facilities outside the city.
For Tom Hefty, the retired CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance and past chairman of Competitive Wisconsin, a major issue is the number of poor people migrating from Chicago and Milwaukee.
“I’m afraid it’s a discussion nobody wants to have,” says Hefty, who was co-chair of Gov. Jim Doyle’s Economic Growth Council from 2003 to 2005.
Actually, there was a major public discussion of poverty and all the various implications during the 1990s. Wisconsin under Gov. Tommy Thompson became a national leader in trying to reform its system of public assistance.
Dubbed “Governor Get-a-Job” by some observers, Thompson pushed a variety of reforms, including a two-tiered welfare system that offered lower payments for new arrivals into the state, ostensibly to counter the “welfare magnet” effect of Wisconsin’s reputedly generous support programs.
While the state Supreme Court eventually struck down the two-tiered system as unconstitutional, other reforms did move forward. Programs like W-2 and the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) showed some success in Wisconsin in breaking the cycle of dependency, says Smeeding.
“They worked because of a strong economy where mothers could get jobs, plus child care and other assistance with finding jobs and with transportation to and from work,” he says. But nationally, Smeeding says welfare reform did little to reduce chronic poverty among single women. “It turned the welfare poor into the working poor and the recession has most likely driven these mothers into living with relatives or partners.”
Either way, Hefty fears rising poverty is costing Madison as the city works to compete in a global economy. He references an analysis of Internal Revenue Service data from 2000 to 2005 showing the leading counties from which people migrated to Dane County were Cook County, Ill., and Milwaukee County.
According to the IRS, those moving into Dane County over that period carried an average annual income of $19,782. Those moving out had incomes of $24,449.
“What all these numbers tell me is that we are attracting very-low-income people into the community,” says Hefty.
Sandra Sykes, 66, migrated to Madison to help raise her grandchildren living on the city’s southeast side. Sykes grew up in Chicago but moved to Milwaukee in 1993 to get away from the crime and other problems. She says she left Milwaukee about five years ago for the same reasons.
“I hate to say it, but Milwaukee is like Chicago now,” she says.
Chicago might be known as the “City of Big Shoulders” but Madison is known to many as a place that opens its arms.
Linda Hoskins, president of the Madison Chapter of the NAACP, relocated from Arkansas in the 1980s seeking a better life for her family and hasn’t been disappointed.
“Madison is a city with a big heart,” she says. “If you come here and you are hungry, you get fed. If you don’t have a place to sleep, nine times out of 10 you’ll find one.”
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz says he’s got no problem with the city enjoying that kind of reputation.
“It’s the nature of the community to want to help people transition into the middle class,” he says. “And I’m not sure we want to change that.”
But the mayor, a Milwaukee transplant himself, has seen the poverty statistics and says they should serve as a wake-up call to the entire area — not just the city of Madison.
“I’ve said it before, but this is a regional issue,” says Cieslewicz. “At some point you get too many people with extraordinary needs and they overwhelm the system.” Cieslewicz says other communities in Dane County must expand their affordable housing efforts so the poor don’t end up concentrated in troubled neighborhoods.
“It’s not just Madison’s issue,” he says.
A much bigger question, of course, is whether any government, religious organization or nonprofit group can actually end long-term poverty.
When President Lyndon Johnson announced the “War on Poverty” during his 1964 State of the Union Address, many thought the problem could be eradicated. But since then, even during the best economic times and with substantial government assistance, the official U.S. poverty rate has never dipped below 10 percent.
Poverty researchers attribute the failure to lower the poverty rate to several factors: the growth of single-parent families, individuals with little education stuck in low-paying jobs, and the historically high poverty rates for people of color.
At the same time, the economic boom of the 1990s was marked by an increased willingness of employers to hire minorities and other groups that traditionally face economic hurdles.
And some government programs, for all their critics, have reduced poverty on a national level. The best example is Social Security, which analysts say is the primary cause of the dramatic declines in elderly poverty over the past 50 years. Medicare has also kept millions of seniors from going broke trying to pay medical bills.
As LBJ predicted nearly 50 years ago, however, the struggle against poverty has proven neither short nor easy. Hefty, for his part, would like to see more creative discussion about new approaches to the poverty question.
“There’s a lack of balance between our economic development and our social services policies,” he says. “We are losing our educated upper-income people and gaining very low-income populations with limited education.”
But the new executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families disputes the “us vs. them” scenario. “It’s not a zero sum game,” says Ken Taylor, who took over the top job at the organization two months ago.
Taylor says government clearly has a role to play in easing poverty. He argues that money spent on the poor — whether a public job, job training or direct assistance — is injected immediately back into the local economy.
“I won’t accept the premise that in order to have a society where the top 2 percent are super wealthy and the rest of us are pretty comfortable, there needs to be 10 or 20 percent poor at the bottom,” he says.
Neither does Ernie Stetenfeld, director of community services for St. Vincent de Paul. He says those living in Milwaukee or Chicago read the same magazine reports about Madison’s quality of life and move here for their chance at a better life. “People who are struggling are drawn here for the same reasons others are,” Stetenfeld says.
Perhaps nowhere is the impact of poverty more acute than on children.
“Poverty is the great disequalizer,” says school chief Nerad. “It affects everything from early medical needs to dental needs to whether there are books in the home.”
And poverty in public schools is an issue statewide, says Patrick Gasper, spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction. Gasper notes that the Bayfield School District in far northern Wisconsin has nearly three-quarters of its students now qualifying for free lunch.
“It’s not just a Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay thing,” he says.
Yet child poverty remains very much a racial issue in Wisconsin. According to a recent report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 43 percent of African-American children in the state are living in poverty versus 9 percent of white children.
“That’s how we get to the figure that childhood poverty for black children in Wisconsin is five times higher than for white kids,” says WCCF’s Taylor.
A need to help the children hasn’t been lost on Sykes, the grandmother from Madison’s Lake Point neighborhood. “Kids need something to do other than just hang around,” she says.
Once known as the infamous Broadway/Simpson neighborhood, the area off West Broadway was often a first stop for those coming into Dane County for the first time. It became an area of high crime and drug activity.
The city of Madison eventually stepped in, redeveloped some of the problem properties and helped the private sector develop others. The name of Simpson Street was also changed to Lake Point Drive in an effort to change the image.
Today, the Lake Point neighborhood is home to a combination of renters, condominium owners and seniors. The crime problem has slowed and new businesses have opened. Madison is now attempting the same thing in the poverty-plagued Allied Drive neighborhood.
The NAACP’s Hoskins says affordable, decent housing remains the biggest challenge for the poor. She recalls being able to rent a two-bedroom apartment for $450 in the 1990s. Today, rents run twice that high.
“You need to remember that poor people pay the same for a loaf of bread as the mayor or the county executive or anyone else who makes a lot of money,” she says.
Sykes has watched the progress at Allied and says the investment there is a step in the right direction. But she says it all comes down to jobs. She worries there is an entire generation of young people coming along who may not have as many opportunities as their parents.
“When even McDonald’s isn’t hiring, you know things aren’t too good,” she says.