The way Republican Gov. Scott Walker tells it, Wisconsin is "working and winning."
To prove his claim, he'll point to the state's record-low unemployment — hovering under 3 percent for the last six months — and its 69 percent labor force participation rate. Wisconsin outperforms the rest of the country in both measures.
However, critics of Walker's agenda will note that wage growth is lagging, the state ranks last in the nation in business startup activity and Walker failed to meet his 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term — and, in his second term, has still not met the goal.
Walker is seeking a third term in November, fending off a challenge from Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. The two will spar for the next two months over their records in public office and their visions for the future.
"Scott Walker keeps his promises and has led our state to record-low unemployment and historic actual-dollar investments in our schools — and he's focused on building on this success with more reforms to keep Wisconsin working for generations to come," said Walker spokesman Austin Altenburg in an email.
But Evers, in an email, said Walker has "put major corporations and special interests before the good of Wisconsin" throughout his eight years as governor.
A recent report from COWS, a nonpartisan but left-leaning think tank housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, highlights a "slow" but "welcome" recovery in Wisconsin about a decade after the Great Recession.
"But from the perspective of working people in Wisconsin, serious longer-term challenges remain. Many of these problems are not unique to the state. Even so, they are daunting," researchers wrote in COWS' "State of Working Wisconsin 2018" report, released earlier this month.
Median hourly wages in Wisconsin are slightly higher in Wisconsin than the rest of the country — $18.34 per hour, compared to $18.26 per hour — but growth for both has been slow since the 1990s. Adjusted for inflation, the median hourly wage for a Wisconsin worker in 2017 was one dollar higher than in 1979. According to the COWS analysis, most of the wage growth between 1979 and 2017 occurred in the 1990s, having grown just 5 percent since 2000.
Median wages for Wisconsin men have decreased one dollar per hour since 1979, while Wisconsin women's median wages have risen $3.79 per hour in the same period. But Wisconsin men still out-earn Wisconsin women by $3.11 per hour. Women in Wisconsin earn 84 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.
Black women's wages have risen less than a dollar since 1979, but median wages for black men have dropped about $3 over the same period. But wages for black men and women still trail their white counterparts, as do Hispanic workers. In 2017, black workers in Wisconsin trailed their white counterparts by more than $3 per hour, and Hispanic workers trailed white workers by about $5 per hour.
And while the state overall boasts record-low unemployment levels, 9.3 percent of black workers were unemployed in 2017 — an unemployment rate 3.5 times higher than white workers. According to COWS, that unemployment disparity is the worst in the country. But Walker's campaign noted that the state's black unemployment rate in 2016 was the lowest it had been in a decade.
Walker's campaign also noted that the state's labor force participation rate was 68.7 percent for whites, 68.9 percent for African-Americans, and 74.4 percent for Hispanics.
Walker's campaign highlighted the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's minority business development program, but Evers' campaign pointed to a 2017 audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau that showed, in 2015-16, just $400,000 of the $171.8 million WEDC issued in loans, grants and tax credits was allocated to those grants. Walker's campaign noted that in 2017, WEDC provided $1.5 million in grants to the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin; the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin; the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin; and the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce to aid minority-owned businesses.
Evers said he would make small, regional, black and Latino-owned businesses a priority in economic development investments.
Evers also said he would address racial and gender disparities by expanding access to health care and investing more in education. His campaign pointed to a new budget proposal from Evers, through the Department of Public Instruction, which includes expanding and funding new programs in the state's five largest school districts — Milwaukee, Kenosha, Green Bay, Madison and Racine — which have disproportionate shares of students with significant achievement gaps. The proposal includes expanding summer school grants, offering new funding for 3K programs and offering extra funding to National Board certified teachers who teach in high-poverty schools in those five districts.
Walker's campaign noted that Wisconsin is home to more than 142,000 women-owned businesses, with an economic impact of $27 billion per year. Walker has also increased the state's child care subsidy rate for low-income families and has proposed increasing the state's child care tax credit.
"Hard-working families want a reformer who delivers results, not a weak-kneed bureaucrat like Tony Evers who sides with unions over children and advocates for the failed policies that took our state in the wrong direction," Altenburg said in a statement.
Walker's plans to strengthen the workforce include expanding the state's youth apprenticeship program to seventh- and eighth-grade students, offering up to $5,000 in tax credits to college graduates who live and work in Wisconsin, offering senior citizens a tax credit to help them stay in their homes, and continuing a "back-to-school" sales tax holiday.
"We need to prioritize Wisconsin businesses and help put more money into Wisconsin workers' pockets. As governor, I will empower workers and innovators, invest in education and job training, and support Wisconsin businesses across the state," Evers said in a statement.
Evers' plans to improve the workforce include replacing WEDC with a new state agency with a regional focus, expanding high-speed broadband access throughout the state, funding road maintenance and expansion and funding "affordable health and childcare; great schools; public transportation from neighborhoods to where the jobs are; broadband throughout Wisconsin; and roads in good repair."
According to a Marquette University Law School poll released last month, Walker leads Evers by 2 points among registered voters. A new poll is set to be released on Tuesday.