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Census: Poverty up 10 percent in Wisconsin counties

Poverty is increasing among Wisconsin counties.

Recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey show that poverty increased by more than 10 percent since 2000 in the majority of Wisconsin counties.

In 2000, only two counties reported poverty rates higher than 15 percent. During the 2005-2009 period, 10 counties reported rates above 15 percent.

Poverty was highest in Menominee (29 percent) and Sawyer (20 percent) counties, followed by Forest, Milwaukee, Ashland, Burnett, Florence, Rusk, Vernon and Dunn counties. La Crosse and Eau Claire counties also reported high poverty, with approximately 15 percent of the population living below the official poverty line. The state average poverty rate was 11 percent.

St. Croix County has a poverty rate of 5.9 percent. A map and table detailing county-specific poverty rates can be found online at

Burnett County, located in the northwestern part of the state, reported the largest growth in poverty. Since 2000, poverty increased by 8 percentage points in the county, growing from about 9 percent to 17 percent. The next largest increase was reported by Florence County, in the northeastern part of the state, where poverty has grown from 9 percent to 16 percent since 2000.

"An increasing proportion of Wisconsin residents are facing economic hardship," says Katherine Curtis, demographic specialist with the UW-Extension and assistant professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at UW-Madison. "This has significant impacts, both immediate and long-term, for individuals, their communities and the state. These numbers suggest that economic development, including living wages, health benefits, food security and housing affordability should be front and center in policy discussions."

Poverty declined modestly in some counties, Curtis said. The greatest decrease was reported by Bayfield County, where poverty fell from 13 percent to about 11 percent.

In 2005-09, poverty was lowest in Waukesha and Ozaukee counties at 4 percent, followed by Washington County at approximately 5 percent and Calumet County at 6 percent. These counties also reported the lowest poverty rates in 2000.

According to the same data, approximately 7.2 percent of family households in Wisconsin reported living in poverty in 2005-09. Among family households, nearly 36 percent of those with children younger than 18 years old were living below the poverty line.

Recent research about Wisconsin shows that limited earnings potential, including the inability to find work or work that pays a living wage, is most strongly linked with economic vulnerability for family households. Single-mother households are constrained by one income and face the additional challenge of balancing the demands of employment and childrearing. Low education is a marker of a less competitive labor force.

Research has also shown a higher prevalence of poverty among racial minorities. This pattern persists in 2005-09. Poverty was highest for African Americans, with nearly 35 percent living in poverty, followed by American Indians (about 27 percent) and Hispanics (23 percent).

Approximately 13 percent of the state's Asian residents were living in poverty. In contrast, 8.5 percent of non-Hispanic whites were in poverty during the period.

Reports on the historical, racial and geographic aspects of poverty in Wisconsin are available online through the Applied Population Laboratory.