COWS: Many Hardworking Wisconsin Families Hardly Getting by

For more information, contact:

Laura Dresser (608) 262-6944
Ed Hatcher (301) 656-0348


Madison—Despite high rates of labor force participation in Wisconsin, many state residents are stuck in jobs that do not provide wages and benefits sufficient to support a family. As a result, tens of thousands of families here are working hard but still struggling to get by, according to a new national report.

The report, Working Hard, Falling Short: America’s Working Families and the Pursuit of Economic Security, documents state-level efforts to help low-income working families. It was released as part of the Working Poor Families Project, an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The report’s Wisconsin findings are highlighted in Working Hard, Falling Short: Wisconsin’s Working Families and the Pursuit of Economic Security, a briefing paper issued by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

Working Hard, Falling Short shows that, while low-income working families in Wisconsin can count on some key state supports, many of these families lack the resources they need to make ends meet. For example:

• More than one in five working Wisconsin families (22.8 percent) faces economic distress, in spite of their commitment to work.
• Nearly 44 percent of minority working families in Wisconsin are low-income – more than twice the share of non-minority working families that are low-income in the state (about 19 percent). Wisconsin ranks in the bottom half of states (30th) on this measure.
• More than 17 percent of Wisconsin workers hold jobs paying below the poverty rate (median wages below $8.84 an hour or $18,392 annually in 2002).
• Nearly half of low-income working families in Wisconsin pay more than a third of their income in housing costs.
• Among low-income working families in Wisconsin, about 28 percent have a parent who lacks a high school degree – a higher share than in 24 other states. Yet Wisconsin spends less than $20 a year in adult education funds on every adult without a high school degree; by contrast, Michigan and Minnesota spend $193 and $124, respectively.

“When it comes to supporting low-income families, Wisconsin has some excellent policies in place,” said COWS Research Director Laura Dresser. “But if we truly expect work to bring self-sufficiency, then we have to do more – strengthen investment in our technical college system and other educational institutions, support higher wages, and keep programs like child care subsidies safe from the budget ax.”

The Working Poor Families Project seeks to help low-income adults succeed in the labor market. To date, the Project has released reports on low-income working families in nine states, including Wisconsin; it will issue six more reports in 2004. For more information about the Project, and to review the state reports as well as the national report Working Hard, Falling Short, visit To see the COWS briefing paper, visit the COWS website at

COWS is a research and policy institute based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and dedicated to improving living standards and economic performance in Wisconsin and nationally.