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Primary Snapshots: The Wisconsin Divide

The dairy state draws attention for some of the nation's highest rates of racial disparity.

Cities in Wisconsin routinely top lists of the country’s most livable cities – Madison recently came in first in a tally of best places to raise a family; Milwaukee, 11th. But by many measures these same cities, and others in Wisconsin, are the worst places to live for black Americans. One recent report even declared it the most unequal state in the country.


“The state of Wisconsin sits at an extreme of racial disparity,” says Laura Dresser, associate director of COWS, a non-profit think-and-do tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And we see the disparity across the life course – from birth and infant mortality through rates of homeownership and incarceration.”


Wisconsin used to be one of the better states for blacks, Dresser notes. In the 1970s, black workers earned more than the average black American worker. “I say this to remind people that [the extreme disparity] here isn’t inherent or inevitable,” says Dresser, “but is the result of the structure of opportunity and policy.” 


Like many states in the Midwest, Wisconsin has historically been good at making investments in public institutions, and these have, in many cases, worked out well for their white populations. More than 92 percent of white students in the state graduate from high school.  White people in Wisconsin vote at higher rates than whites in other parts of the country (74 percent to 65 percent across the country in the 2016 general election.) Only about five percent of people in Wisconsin lack health insurance (compared to almost nine percent nationally). And overall, median earnings in Wisconsin have increased at a rate higher than the national average. 

“But expenses continue to outpace earnings,” says Charlene Mouille, executive director of the United Way of Wisconsin, “particularly in health care and child care.” Approximately 38 percent of households in Wisconsin still don’t earn enough to meet the state’s basic survival budget, which the United Way of Wisconsin calculated to be $61,620 for a family of four as of 2018 .


This situation is only getting worse amid the current global pandemic. United Way manages the state’s 211 system, and Mouille says that in the last couple of weeks, she’s seen a 400 to 500 percent increase in the number of calls coming in about food and other basic needs. 


“It’s not, ‘what is this COVID-19?’” she says. “It’s, ‘How am I going to eat and earn enough money to survive this?’”

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