Tell us a little bit about what contributes to rural poverty.
Curtis: One of the biggest issues in rural communities is economic development. Some of the main drivers in Wisconsin are actually underemployment and unemployment. When we look at the distribution of poverty across the state and different counties, we notice that it tends to be clustered in the northern part of the state, where there is less economic development. Specifically, we think about forest-related industry as well as the agricultural industry or extractive industries in general. When we have a community that might be solely dependent on a particular type of industry, if anything happens to that industry, whether it's due to local reasons or, more likely national or even global industrial reasons, then that community is susceptible to contractions.
Single female-headed households are another factor commonly associated with poverty, and we also see it in Wisconsin. Recent census data show that the proportion of single-father households also is increasing, and at a faster rate than single-mother households. Household structure is a factor in poverty because it identifies the number of potential earners. When you have one adult earner, by simple math, you can understand that that household is going to be making less than a dual-earner household.
What can we do to address the problem?
Tigges: The problem of poverty is a problem of job quality for rural people. Joblessness is not as big of an issue, but what's happened is that the jobs aren't paying enough to lift a family out of poverty. Rural jobs tend to pay less, they tend to have worse benefits and they tend to be more seasonal and part-time. So job quality is a huge issue. There's still a rural–urban difference where rural single-earner poverty rates are higher than urban single-earner households, and that's because job quality is generally lower. So, if you ask what would be an anti-poverty strategy it would be to improve jobs. Not just providing more jobs but improving wages.
Can you describe a situation that lifts someone out of poverty?
Tigges: One way of looking at it is having people pay for fewer of life's necessities with their income—for example, having more subsidies for childcare, more public transportation, more relief in terms of health insurance. All of those things can take big bites out of family income, and any emergency in those areas can throw a family into poverty or make it impossible for a family to climb out of poverty. So, if you can't improve wages you need to reduce the things for which the family has to use its wages.
The other factor about wages, though, is that in most Wisconsin counties the living wage for a family of three is around $17 an hour—and that's about $10 more than the current minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. The minimum wage, which is raised only when Congress takes action, has failed to keep up with the cost of living. In 2011 it was worth only about 70 percent of its value in 1968. Consequently, a person who worked full-time, year-round at the minimum wage in 2011 fell $7,732 short of the income necessary to lift a family of four one dollar above the poverty line. We're not going to lift people out of poverty with adjustments to the minimum wage unless we finally look closely at what "minimum" is supposed to mean and who is really affected by the minimum wage.