In May, the University of Wisconsin-Madison called on the community to tackle a massive goal: raise the net incomes of 10,000 Dane County families by 10 percent by 2020.

After asking for fresh ideas, they’ve narrowed the proposals — all of which involve partnerships between the community and university — to three finalists: free legal assistance to clear barriers to employment, an effort to provide affordable early childhood and after-school care yet provide a living wage to child care workers, and an idea for a professional network and financial empowerment app.

The effort, known as “DreamUp Wisconsin,” was created and funded by a $1.5 million grant from Schmidt Futures, a self-described “venture facility for public benefit.” Schmidt Futures was created by Eric Schmidt, a former CEO of Google.

Schmidt Futures also selected University of Utah, Ohio State University and Arizona State University to participate in the inaugural year of the “Alliance for the American Dream” to raise income or decrease the cost of living for 10,000 households.

Lawrence Berger, director of the UW’s Institute for Research on Poverty, said in May that the goal is to put about $4,000 in the pockets of Dane County families.

UW-Madison asked for creative ideas from throughout the community to build up the county’s middle class and hopefully narrow racial disparities.

In Dane County, median household income is “relatively high” at about $65,000, according to the UW Institute for Research on Poverty. But the median household income for African-Americans in Dane County is $30,000, and people of color suffer from much higher unemployment rates than white individuals.

To combat this, UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty helped solicit proposals bringing together nonprofits, government leaders, community groups and businesses.

To gather community input to shape the project, graduate students conducted interviews at locations like libraries, schools and public events. Asked what makes it difficult for families to “get ahead financially,” respondents listed the cost of living, a tight job market and low wages, expensive childcare, racial discrimination, education costs and an inability to qualify for social benefits as contributing factors.

The 11 most promising proposals out of the 46 submitted were given $10,000 in October to further develop their ideas. On Dec. 13, the proposals were slimmed down to three finalists.

“Choosing among these proposals was a daunting task, as so many held promise to substantially benefit our community,” UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement. “But I believe we have selected three proposals that address serious problems in very different domains and that have a high probability of success if implemented in the community.”

The finalists will present their ideas before Schmidt Futures on Jan. 29, and at least one UW-Madison team will receive funding from Schmidt Futures to refine its plans between January and June. Teams from all universities will then pitch their ideas to Schmidt Futures leadership for funding to implement their proposal, said Hilary Shager, associate director at IRP.

And there's still hope for proposals that don't advance: a DreamUp Wisconsin showcase in the coming months hopes to garner attention and resources for the 46 original ideas.

"These are great ideas for the community and we do want to support them -- it’s not over when they don't reach the next step," Shager said. 

The three finalists: 

LIFT (Legal Interventions For Transforming) Dane

Partners: Legal Action of Wisconsin, UW Law School, and Employment and Training Association (EATA) of Dane County

Criminal records and civil legal problems can create huge barriers for those looking for work. To fix this, the effort would “make data about these problems accessible to everyday residents; conduct holistic legal checkups to identify problems with legal solutions; and connect people to free legal aid to address these fixable legal problems.”

We Care For Dane Kids

Partners: Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, Reach Dane, the UW Schools of Social Work and Education, the City of Madison and Madison Out-of-School Time

The DreamUp survey found the high cost and difficulty finding flexible child care was a significant burden on Dane County families. This effort wants to change early childhood and after school care, and would “supplement income for workers and child care costs, reduce operating expenses for facilities, and create a child care benefit program.”


Partners: Urban League of Greater Madison, United Way of Dane County, Latino Academy of Workforce Development, Dane County Human Services, Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin, Common Wealth Development, American Family Insurance, the City of Madison and the UW Center for Financial Security

This effort wants to give workers “on the cusp of the middle class” an extra boost via an app described as “part LinkedIn for entry-level workers and part FitBit for your finances.”

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