From May until July of this year, the UW Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) will conduct a series of community meetings, forums and other means of engaging everyday people as part of an initiative called the Alliance for the American Dream, funded with a $1.5 million grant from Schmidt Futures. The initiative was announced at a press conference last week.
The community engagement will be a listening tour of sorts, designed to help the IRP come up with a minimum of 10 proposals by this fall on ways to raise the median family household income by 10 percent in Dane County.
The IRP will host forums on and around UW campuses as well as doing everything from online polling to just asking people in grocery stores or public places what they see as the causes of income disparities and issues surrounding middle-class financial stability in Dane County.
The median household income in Dane County is $65,000 but that number is deceptive. The average median income for a Black family, for example, is $30,000 per year and Dane County includes many rural areas where the average household income is even lower.
The venture, called DreamUp Wisconsin, will seek to hear from every section of the community to learn what the issues are around the community and how to reduce the costs of things like public transportation in order to keep more money in the pockets of residents.
The IRP is hoping to use these community forums as a springboard to have 10 proposals that can be advanced to a board meeting that will take place in September 2018. By December, the IRP would like to have narrowed that list down to three proposals that will be funded and continued to be given support into 2019.
All of the proposals are required to be focused on collaborating with University of Wisconsin campuses and have to include increasing average income while decreasing costs of living.
“Dane County is a very uneven economy and that’s why we chose Dane County as a testing ground,” said Lonnie Berger, the Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty. “It really includes rural, suburban and urban areas. So, over the next few months we will conduct a series of community forums. We’ll also conduct interviews with people in libraries, fairs, festivals and grocery stores.”
Schmidt Futures, a company that uses technology and ideas for shared prosperity to help boost communities, will be funding one of the proposals in a test run that, if successful, could lead to the company funding more of the proposals that come out of the community forums. In addition to the University of Wisconsin, Schmidt Futures has included the University of Utah, Arizona State and Ohio State as part of the Alliance for the American Dream. The alliance is network of communities, each centered around one of the above-named universities, that challenges citizens to develop new policies to increase the net income of the middle class.
Dane County’s uneven economy and racial disparities are part of why the University of Wisconsin signed on to the venture.
“We hope to reach out across all communities and make this as diverse as we can,” University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank told Madison365. “Clearly there’s divisions by race, there’s divisions by ethnicity, there’s divisions by geography when you look at incomes in Dane County. And one of the questions here is do we have some ideas as to what would work across all of those different areas? So I think the things we might end up test piloting are the ideas that we think will be really promising to decrease those divisions.”
Schmidt Futures says they don’t want this to be about them, they want it to be about the communities across Dane County. The questions people in the community can expect to be asked are, what is standing in the way of growing the middle class? And how can we put more money in people’s pockets?
“We’ll be facilitating a series of conversations out of which we hope will come some proposals from inside the University and some from the community, which would them become joint,” Chancellor Blank said. “The goal is ten percent increase in income for ten thousand people in Dane County over the next ten years. The proposals we get over the summer and early fall will be winnowed through and we’ll take the most promising ones. Schmidt has made a commitment to fund a demonstration project. So the community should benefit in a number of ways from this.”
Schmidt Futures has committed to funding another round after 2019. Anyone interested in participating in the community forum or who has ideas for proposals is encouraged to email firstname.lastname@example.org.