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The River Food Pantry serves hundreds of families a week in Dane County.

MIKE DEVRIES

When school’s not in session, the River Food Pantry on the north side of Madison delivers lunch to eight nearby low-income neighborhoods.

The program, known as Madison Unites to Nourish Children at Home, gives out about 485 lunches to kids every day: a PB&J or meat and cheese sandwich, fresh fruit or applesauce, crackers or chips, and sometimes, chocolate pudding.

The River also serves hot meals and runs a food and clothing pantry, assisting over two thousand families a month. And despite assumptions about low-income individuals “using the system,” many of those families are working one or two low-wage jobs, said Charles McLimans, executive director at The River.

The good news is that increasingly on a state level, families are able to find jobs that pull them out of poverty, according to the 2017 report from the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP). But the report also highlights the need for non-cash benefits and tax credits to help those, like The River families, who are still struggling.

The official poverty rate has been on the decline in Wisconsin since 2011, when the rate was 13.5 percent. In 2015, the rate was at 10.8 percent.

But the official poverty measure can’t easily identify reasons for that decline, said Timothy Smeeding, former director of IRP and an investigator on the study. That’s because it doesn’t account for tax credits, noncash income support programs like food stamps, or child care and out-of-pocket medical costs. Plus, it was created in the 1960’s based on spending habits at the time, he said.

To help correct this, Smeeding led an IRP team to develop the Wisconsin Poverty Measure (WPM) in 2008.

The WPM accounts for taxes, cash and noncash benefits and prices in Wisconsin. It also excludes single college students making less than $5000 a year, to avoid artificial inflation of the poverty rate in college towns.

Using this measure, the poverty rate in Wisconsin dropped from 10.7 percent in 2011 to 9.7 percent in 2015.

And because the WMP tracks both market-income poverty and final poverty rates, it can show how Wisconsinites are escaping poverty, Smeeding said.

A look at the market-income poverty rates provides insight into job health, the report said, because it focuses on earnings and income, and does not include taxes or benefits. This rate has remained relatively constant for the past few years, but “fell decisively” in 2015.

This shows that “more and more people are earning their way out of poverty,” Smeeding said.

But not everyone has the ability to earn their way out, Smeeding said, giving the example of single mothers, who often can’t work full time. That’s why public benefits like SNAP and the earned income tax credit are important.

They’re also “incredibly effective programs,” in reducing poverty, he said. The report shows that the WPM, which takes those programs into account, is lower than the official poverty measure. This emphasizes what the IRP has long maintained; government safety net of programs like SNAP keep people out of poverty.

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The WPM doesn’t offer city-level data, but it shows that poverty in Dane County was 11.5 percent in 2011 and a slightly lower 11.2 percent in 2015.

Only the official poverty measure provides city level data, which shows that 15 percent of Madison residents lived below the official poverty line in 2000, according to the U.S. Census of that year. Fast forward to 2015, and the American Community Survey (ACS) puts the five-year estimate of poverty in Madison at 19.0 percent.

And it’s much worse for African Americans in Madison, who in 2015 experienced a 37.9 percent poverty rate, as compared to 16 percent for whites, according to the ACS. 

Apartment List also recently noted that the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the city increased from nine in 2000 to 14 in 2015. High-poverty neighborhoods are those where 20 percent or more of the residents live below the poverty line, which is currently $12,060 for an individual.

Smeeding noted that high-poverty neighborhoods are not the norm in Madison, where poverty tends to be less concentrated and more “spread out” around the city.

But because this data relies on the official poverty measure, it’s hard to know the reasons for the local increase, Smeeding said.

McLimans did note that Madison is very welcoming to political refugees, who often face extreme language barriers without much support.