Graphic by Laura Mahoney
DreamUp Wisconsin will desegregate fiscal disparities to brighten future for Dane County residents
When Eric Schmidt receives questions on defying financial instability, his positivity radiates as he eyes an equitable future in Dane County.
But Schmidt, the former Google chairman and developer of the Alliance of the American Dream, is not blind.
“Today, too many middle-class families find themselves at risk of falling into poverty, while too few see a path to build a brighter future for their children,” he said. “America needs a strong middle class; our future depends on it.”
Poverty plagues the country, and although Dane County median household income averages $65,000 and maintains low unemployment rates, striking inequalities continue to persist.
With the capitol building in viewable distance from Bascom Hall, the street between them is only a small microcosm of the poverty that affects thousands of the county’s residents.
However, DreamUp Wisconsin is working to fix this. The program bridges university research with Dane County community leaders to raise the net income of 10,000 households by 10 percent by 2020.
“The UW-Madison community has long been a pioneer in thinking about new ways to lift people out of poverty, and now we are excited to support them as they fuel an innovation engine to help distressed communities and expand the middle class.”
A long list of fiscal roadblocks — childcare, education, low wages, strict benefits, unaffordable cost of living — led to economic declines that cripple prosperity and opportunity, especially for people of color.
African American families’ median income is less than half the county’s average, reaching only $30,000. More than half of the renters throughout the county utilize more than 30 percent of their household income to cover the cost of rent.
“There are stark disparities in these outcomes by race and ethnicity, masking the struggles of our most vulnerable residents and leaving many out of the middle class,” said Hilary Shager, the Associate Director of Programs & Management for the UW Institute for Research on Poverty.
These imbalances — along with limited access to public transportation and scarce economic opportunities for upwards mobility — have caused rural communities to dip under the poverty line.
Raising the minimum wage, providing educational services and improving financial literacy prove to be beneficial to social and financial movement in the area, as well as throughout the country.
“The best ideas will come from people working together, right in their communities — taking interdisciplinary approaches, grounded in facts and data science, and drawn from diverse sets of people,” Schmidt said.
Supplying these services could ease the worries of families by eradicating a towering stack of bills and allowing more time to be spent with one another with flexible scheduling.
Another method is through ensuring all residents are provided with crucial legal aid that prevent workers from pursuing, as well as maintaining, good-paying jobs, according to Vicky Selkowe, the director of Legislative, Training, and Rulemaking Compliance at the Legal Action of Wisconsin.
“That prevents local employers from having a broad and deep pool of workers to hire from and allows racial, geographic, and economic disparities to continue and grow in our community,” Selkowe said.
With all these factors in mind, The Alliance of the American Dream needed one more public university in their caliber.
UW-Madison has often been recognized for students’ desire to take handwritten notes on paper beyond the classroom to improve the wellbeing of others throughout the community. DreamUp provides a reminder of what the Wisconsin Idea was built on nearly two centuries ago.
Thus, the university was selected.
“The UW-Madison community has long been a pioneer in thinking about new ways to lift people out of poverty, and now we are excited to support them as they fuel an innovation engine to help distressed communities and expand the middle class,” Schmidt said.
The project is funded by his organization, Schmidt Futures, which aims to utilize technology, scientific knowledge to promote prosperity and advance society. Schmidt is keen on providing the funding to cease socioeconomic divide.
The IRP, which has been a successful resource for poverty research, will lead the program at the university. UW-Madison is one of the four universities participating, alongside Arizona State University, Ohio State University and the University of Utah.
The future of the Alliance of the American Dream Initiative was featured in discussions lead by the IRP in grocery stores, libraries and festivals to reach out to rural, suburban and urban communities.
Last month, the initiative introduced 11 proposals that emphasized ways to tackle socioeconomic disparities. This is only a handful of the 46 proposals the community and university members originally submitted.
By December, the IRP is hoping to finalize a list of three proposals to fund and support well into next year.
The proposals were obligated to focus on collaboration with UW campuses, surrounding the principle of increasing average income while decreasing the cost of living.
“Although the challenge is significant, we have been thrilled by the community’s response to the initiative,” Shager said. “Teams have been encouraged to think big, think outside the box, and harness technology to support their solutions.”
Decreasing expenses is difficult in the current economy, but hope is not lost. The innovative thinkers behind the proposals factored in affordable housing and education, increasing wages and lowering healthcare costs into their ideas.
The finalized proposals took these concepts to heart by including improved early childhood care systems, obliterating laborers’ legal barriers to employment, a fully integrated transportation system in the Madison area and a medical debt forgiveness program.
Parents and families throughout Madison who are searching for permanent support in the future keep healthcare and childcare services at the forefront of their mind.
The Wisconsin Early Childhood Association is looking to launch the Employee Child Care Benefit contribution program along with increasing utilization of child care subsidies. They are also seeking to raise wages by 10 percent and increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Health care providers are collaborating with non-profit providers to build economic security. GreenPath Financial Wellness, Rural Dynamics Incorporated are partnering to reduce the burden of medical debt with a forgiveness program.
Another potential starting point for residents is increasing citizen’s financial literacy. The UW Credit Union sent in a “10 step financial literacy, holistic financial well-being program” for low to middle-income families. This would feature discussions of financial review and planning.
Metro Transit is a key leader in transportation for many students on campus as well as throughout the Madison community. Their proposal, called JobRide Plus, would allow Madisonians increased accessibility to jobs in neighboring communities without owning a car.
Suspended driver’s licenses, criminal records and unjust child support orders affect thousands of Dane County residents. One of the proposals is planning to work with service providers and local employers to provide essential legal services.
“All of these issues are civil legal problems,” Selkowe said. “And, if you’re struggling to make ends meet in Dane County, you don’t have resources to pay an attorney to help you overcome them.”
Selkowe and the Legal Action of of Wisconsin surrounded their proposal around legal aid, noting the importance of providing civil attorneys.
“Civil legal aid can restore driver’s licenses, reduce debt owed, set up realistic child support orders, correct/remove criminal records, and more – all increasing disposable income and wages and opening up clearer pathways to better jobs,” Selkowe said.
DreamUp Wisconsin is hoping to reshape the socioeconomic climate of Dane County and catabolize the suffrage that is often shaped by racial and ethnic systemic disparities.
Schmidt’s goals are not original, but introduce the first step to solve the separation by encouraging citizens to look within their community for answers.
And, Shager is hopeful that the Alliance of the American Dream will not only lead to the alleviation of prosperity throughout the state, but across the nation.
“We would love for the initiative to live on beyond the initial challenge and/or expand in some form,” she said. “In Wisconsin, we have a long history of forging community-university partnerships to address real-world problems.”
Editor’s Note: This article discusses one particular proposal, from the Legal Action of Wisconsin, in-depth. This is due to busy schedules and small windows of communication. No proposal is favored over another. They all present viable improvements to the Dane County area in their own ways.