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Madison teams win major funding competition with ideas to raise net incomes of Dane County families

Madison teams win major funding competition with ideas to raise net incomes of Dane County families

Last May, the University of Wisconsin-Madison called on the community to brainstorm creative ways to reach a massive goal: raise the net incomes of 10,000 Dane County families by 10% by 2020.

Forty-six teams answered the call. On Thursday, two of those teams presented their ideas in the final round of the national competition, vying for a $1 million prize in capital investment.

Both came out winners. One idea to provide legal assistance to clear barriers to employment and housing tied for first place, earning it a $1 million provisional award. Another effort aiming to transform the child care sector tied for second place, earning it a provisional award of $300,000.

Plus, both teams got an additional provisional $100,000 for tying the vote among other competing teams as the projects most directly addressing the competition’s goal.

“I really thought it was going to be one award in total across the four universities,” said Lawrence Berger, director of the UW’s Institute for Research on Poverty. “It was really just terrific to see both groups get supported.”

The Alliance for the American Dream competition was funded by Schmidt Futures, a self-described “venture facility for public benefit” funded by Wendy and Eric Schmidt, a former CEO of Google.

Schmidt Futures selected University of Utah, Ohio State University, Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to participate in the inaugural year of the “Alliance for the American Dream” to raise income or decrease the cost of living in order to build up the middle class.

UW-Madison’s effort was known as “DreamUp Wisconsin,” and Berger said last May that the goal was to put about $4,000 in the pockets of Dane County families. The university’s Institute for Research on Poverty led the effort and helped solicit proposals, which all included a partnership between the university and community.

Two Dane County teams presented their ideas in New York on Thursday.

LIFT (Legal Interventions For Transforming) Dane is a partnership between Legal Action of Wisconsin, UW Law School, and Employment and Training Association (EATA) of Dane County.

“What a day to be able to bring back resources to our community to really help thousands of families. We have a civil legal justice crisis and this is going to make a dent in it,” said Sarah Davis, associate director of the Center of Patient Partnerships in the UW Law School and a member of the LIFT Dane team.

While many people are “acutely aware of the problems with the criminal justice system,” said Marsha Mansfield, director of UW Law School’s Economic Justice Institute and member of the LIFT Dane team, there are many civil legal needs that “people in our community face every day that they’re just not getting help with.”

These civil legal problems can create huge barriers for those looking for work and housings, like having a suspended driver's license due to unpaid tickets and missing out on work.

LIFT Dane will create an online platform that will allow users to complete a brief and easily accessible legal tune-up that will obtain data from multiple public sources to identify and address civil legal problems, like consumer debt and suspended licenses.

An example: some individuals were charged with a crime but never convicted or prosecuted, yet it still shows up on their record, Mansfield said, which can act as a deterrent to employers or landlords. It’s possible to remove such records administratively, and LIFT Dane could help.

The first step in implementing the project is to obtain records and design the technology for the app-based program, Mansfield said, and then they will likely start with a focus on helping those with driver’s license problems. (Not those with criminal offense like an OWI, which needs to go through the court process.)

We Care For Dane Kids is a partnership between Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, Reach Dane, the UW Schools of Social Work and Education, the City of Madison, Madison Out-of-School Time, Satellite Family Child Care Systems and Total Administrative Services Corporation.

“I think the reaction is sort of there is surprise and excitement about it. There’s also disappointment in terms of coming in at that second place,” said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association and a member of the We Care For Dane Kids team.

But the team is excited to continue working on their vision and is looking to leverage other funds, she said.

“Our project was essentially to address a broken system of care and education for Dane County’s young children,” Schmidt said, adding that many working families are priced out of the market for child care.

In Dane County, 90% of income-eligible families are not accessing Wisconsin’s child care subsidy program, Schmidt said, and We Care For Dane Kids would work to increase awareness and use of the program.

It would also create a shared services network among child care programs, creating economies of scale by having child care providers share expenses like payroll and invoicing.

The project would also supplement compensation for child care workers, who make around $13 an hour in Dane County. Finally, the project would promote dependent care flexible spending accounts, where parents can put money in pre-tax and use it to pay for their child care, Schmidt said.

The We Care For Dane Kids team will “do some regrouping” Schmidt said, but pursuing the flexible spending account aspect of their project is likely a first priority.

Berger said the competition created an incentive to offer big-picture ideas.

“That’s the kind of thing that happens often without some real incentivizing because people are busy,” he said.

He noted that other groups that did not advance to the final rounds of the competition are raising their own money and starting to implement their projects, Berger said. And he believes the connections and partnerships formed between the university and community groups and within the community have been “fantastic.”

“The value of the relationships that have been created on our team is nothing short of exceptional, and I'm incredibly grateful for them and grateful for the leadership that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has shown,” Schmidt said.

She noted she was “incredibly grateful” that Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway came along with the team to New York.

“I think she really understands the value of our project and the incredible need in our community,” she said.

This concludes the first round of the DreamUp Wisconsin challenge; proposals for the next round of competition are due Oct 1.

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