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Whitewater Listed as the Poorest City in Wisconsin

Samuel Stebbins and Michael B. Sauter, from 24/7 Wall Street, report Which town in your state is the poorest? Here is the list @ Gannett’s USA Today.

For Wisconsin, they contend it’s Whitewater:

  • Town median household income: $30,934

  • State median household income: $54,610

  • Town poverty rate: 38.2%

  • Town population: 14,840

Whitewater has both the lowest median household income and the highest poverty rate of any town in Wisconsin. The typical Whitewater household earns $30,934 a year, significantly lower than the median income across the state of $54,610. Additionally, 38,2% of Whitewater residents live in poverty compared to 12.7% of Wisconsin residents. Despite the low incomes, a relatively small share of Whitewater residents depend on government assistance to afford food. Just 12.6% of Whitewater households receive SNAP benefits, in line with the 12.7% recipiency rate across the state.

Nobody wants to read something like this less than I do.  It’s heartbreaking.

These last several weeks, I’ve been reviewing data on mean and median household income changes between the City of Whitewater, the state of Wisconsin, and America over this last generation.  Whitewater’s relative decline is evident, with only some early data – on median income circa 1990 – yet needing to be added.  Child poverty is shockingly high.  The reporting from Stebbins and Sauter does not, sadly, surprise – any reasoned review of key measurements would show how troubled is Whitewater’s situation.

A generation of small-town marketing and public relations lies cannot conceal the difficult condition for large numbers of Whitewater households.

While these difficult conditions for many are not my own, I’m neither inclined to believe that the condition of a few justifies hardship for many others nor tempted to contend that the many should be statisfied only by the good fortune of the few. 

Stebbins and Sauter describe their approach:

Income inequality is a growing problem in the United States. Perhaps more evident now than in any time in recent memory, conspicuous consumption is juxtaposed with abject poverty in cities and towns across the country. While the rich and poor often live side by side, in some American towns, serious financial hardship is a daily reality for most who live there.

In every state, there are towns where the median household income falls well below the state and national median incomes. In over a dozen states, there are towns in which the typical household earns less than half the income that a typical household statewide earns.

24/7 Wall Street reviewed the median annual household income in every American town to identify the poorest town in each state. Even in wealthy states like Maryland and New Jersey there are towns that rank among the poorest in the country.

Any sound methodology and resulting measurement (and median household income is a standard measurement) that places Whitewater anywhere near the bottom reveals the fundamental failure of existing – years-long – approaches in Whitewater.

See also A Candid Admission from the Whitewater CDA.

Comments: Please see comments to this post, below, about whether these figures include the student population (I think they do) and what that means for the whole town (at best, a mixed picture, I think).  Many thanks for this discussion – one is always better in conversation.

4 comments for “Whitewater Listed as the Poorest City in Wisconsin

  1. George Bailey
    05/11/2018 at 11:19 AM

    I am seeking to understand fully… do the measurements above include or ignore the student population?

    • JOHN ADAMS
      05/11/2018 at 1:14 PM

      Thanks very much for your comment – it’s very welcome. This is a key point, and the city-wide population number they use, combined with the poverty number they cite (38%), tells that it’s a city-wide number (all population, that is, a student and non-student number).

      There’s no doubt that some significant measure of this ranking must come from student-aged residents. (The poverty number is notably high where one would expect it to be among a student age bracket, ages 18-34.)

      A few points, quickly expressed:

      1. Including or excluding students from these calculations might alter the city’s statewide ranking, but even if ranked higher by excluding students, Whitewater has a weak household income picture among non-students.

      2. It’s worth noting that poverty among those under 18 years of age in Whitewater tallies somewhat around 20% and at under five years of age, it’s even higher. Those aren’t student numbers, of course.

      Even among those likely to be in a non-student age bracket, household income is hardly strong (not just those under 18, but also those 35-64, have poverty levels higher than America’s average).

      2. Student or non-student, the challenge is that the sum of all households in Whitewater as a mean or a listing of them (to find a median) reveals that the overall economy is not a prosperous one in aggregate.

      Back the student population out, and you’ve a much smaller number of people with average American buying power – nothing like the 14,000 or so of total population, but a city of less than half that size.

      Keep the students in the population for economic calculations, and the 14,000 or so here look nothing like a community with 14,000 of a more conventional demographic range.

      3. This has huge policy implications, of course. With or without students in consideration, Whitewater has a relatively smaller number with significant buying power. I wish it were otherwise, truly, but it’s not. Whitewater’s policymakers don’t often – if at all – depict the city in these terms. Some of us are truly fortunate, but a clear majority of all residents, and large numbers even of non-student residents, have lower household income than the American (or even Wisconsin) averages.

      4. A comparison of mean and median incomes is useful, of course, because mean alone might present a distortion from a few wealthy households; a median as a comparison is a good test of whether the mean sits above or below the median (and so how households compare to an average).

      5. I’ll finish with my own data collection as soon as I can, where I am interested more in trends in Whitewater as against state and American household income measures (how is Whitewater faring compared to the state and nation?). I’ve not thought about a ranking as Samuel Stebbins and Michael Sauter have. I’m not surprised, however, that Whitewater’s numbers are troubling, and that she’s not performing well in key measures, apart from any ranking.

      6. From my point of view, if public policy doesn’t address poverty and economic under-performance as a key concern, well, I’m not sure what’s the point of public policy.

      Undoubtedly, I don’t think that – for Whitewater, especially – public works projects and business-attraction subsidies have been worthwhile for the economic betterment of the vast majority of local households, student or non-student. (It’s very possible that direct aid to, and programs for, the poor – at a fraction of the millions in public works – might have been as or more effective. Possible, but one cannot be sure. It does seem clear, however, that this Community Development Authority’s very different approach has been a stark failure.)

  2. Joe
    05/11/2018 at 12:12 PM

    Does the ranking include University students?

    • JOHN ADAMS
      05/11/2018 at 1:29 PM

      Yes, and other few points, above.