Lincoln statue on UW-Madison campus

UW-Madison faculty and staff on two teams that include community partners won money in a national competition that asked for big ideas on how to move more people into the middle class.

Here’s a big, lofty question for you to wrestle with: How would you increase the income of 10,000 Dane County households by 10% — or about $4,000 — by 2020?

Two area teams won $1.5 million last week in a national competition to put their answers to that ambitious question into action.

The Alliance for the American Dream competition awards money to the most promising project proposals that aim to move more families into the middle class. Schmidt Futures, which provides the funding, selected the University of Utah, Ohio State University, Arizona State University and UW-Madison to participate in the competition’s inaugural year.

A UW-community partnership tackling civil legal problems tied for first place and received $1.1 million. And another group planning to revamp Dane County’s early child care tied for second, earning $400,000.

Lawrence Berger, director of UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, which solicited ideas from the community, said he described the teams’ financial awards as “initial investments.”

Both teams need to raise more money in order to complete the projects to scale by the end of next year. Schmidt Futures provides additional money on a matching basis up to a certain level.

Fixable legal problems

Suspended driver’s licenses, unpaid parking tickets, child support payments — these are what Sarah Davis, a clinical professor at UW Law School, calls “fixable legal problems.”

But sometimes people, particularly those in the middle or lower classes, are unfamiliar with how to solve these problems, which then limits their lives in ways that have real economic consequences.

For example, having a suspended driver’s license may mean a worker finding a job near reliable public transportation as opposed to a higher-paying one further from a bus stop. Or an individual shopping at the closest grocery store instead of the most affordable option. Or a potential employer perceiving an applicant’s lack of a license as an indication that the worker may not reliably show up to work and discounting him or her from the position.

About 14,000 people have lost their drivers’ license because of fines and forfeitures in the last 18 months in Dane County, Davis said.

LIFT Dane County — a partnership between UW Law School, Legal Action of Wisconsin and the Employment and Training Association (EATA) of Dane County — will build a technology platform that uses the data to identify those with fixable legal problems and direct them to the right form or legal clinic that can assist.

“We have been addressing the legal barriers for years one client at a time,” Davis said. “It’s inefficient.”

LIFT Dane County will start with suspended drivers’ licenses, but wants to address other civil legal problems, such as eviction, in the future.

The competition “made us dream big,” Davis said.

Child care transformation

Child care for an infant can cost as much as $16,000 annually in Dane County, pricing many working families out of the market. And wages for child care workers hover around $13 per hour, leading to high staff turnover, waiting lists for families and even program closures.

“The system is broken,” said Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.

The association teamed up with Reach Dane, Satellite Family Child Care Systems, the UW schools of Social Work and Education, the city of Madison, Madison Out-of-School Time and TASC to collaborate on the We Care for Dane Kids project, which wants to expand access to affordable child care in the county.

Promoting the state’s child-care subsidy program, which can cover as much as $12,000 annually of child care costs for income-eligible families, is one of the project’s strategies.

Another one of the team’s ideas is to coordinate shared services among facilities that will reduce operating expenses.

We Care for Dane Kids also plans to educate employees and employers about dependent care flexible spending accounts, where parents can put up to $5,000 annually into the pre-tax account through their employer’s payroll system to pay for child care.

Schmidt said the team received letters from area companies — representing about 20 percent of the county’s workforce — that support the project’s promotion of the pre-tax accounts.

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