Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, May 1, 2014

Safety net crucial for Wisconsin families, Smeeding says

Tim Smeeding Tim Smeeding

For Tim Smeeding, understanding the effects of public programs on poor people is paramount.

"There are lots of confusing reports out there with inaccurate findings," says Smeeding, professor of public affairs and director of the Institute for Research on Poverty.


Tim Smeeding's books include:

  • From Parents to Children, co-edited with John Ermicsch and Markus Jantti
  • The Handbook of Economic Inequality, co-edited with Brian Nolan and Weimer Salverda
  • The Future of the Family, co-edited by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Lee Rainwater
  • The American Welfare State: Laggard or Leader? edited with Irv Garfinkel and Lee Rainwater
  • Young Disadvantaged Men: Fathers, Families, Poverty, and Policy, edited with Irv Garfinkel and Ron Mincy
  • Persistence, Privilege and Parenting: The Comparative Study of Intergenerational Mobility, edited with Robert Erikson and Markus Jantti.
To understand poverty in Wisconsin and the effects of programs to reduce it, Smeeding touts the Wisconsin Poverty Measure, which will issue its sixth annual report in May.

To determine the impact of state and federal policies, the Wisconsin Poverty Measure takes a broader accounting of the needs and resources of Wisconsin's poor compared to the official poverty measure.

Smeeding developed the measure with then-IRP assistant researcher Joanna Marks, a 2010 La Follette School alum; Julia Isaacs of IRP and the Brookings Institution; and Katie Thornton of the IRP programming team. Their first set of results, released in 2010, found that poverty had worsened in Wisconsin in 2008. More than one in nine of the state's population was living in need, including one in seven children and one in 10 elderly residents.

By the 2013 Wisconsin Poverty Report, fewer Wisconsin children lived in poverty in 2011. "Even as poverty among Wisconsin children increased from 2010-11 due to declines in parents' incomes and safety net program cuts, Wisconsin's safety net meant fewer children lived in poverty in 2011," Smeeding says. "The social safety net provided a buffer against poverty during the recession, though its impact lessened in 2011 due to policy changes at the state and federal levels."

The key takeaway, Smeeding says, is that "a safety net that enhances low earnings for families with children, puts food on the table and encourages self-reliance—as Wisconsin's safety net does—can alleviate market-driven poverty. But even small reductions in the safety net in a still-weak economy can push poverty rates higher in Wisconsin."

In addition to conference and symposium presentations, Smeeding notes he receives many calls from journalists seeking comment about poverty and issues ranging from minimum wages to employment and inequality during the recession. "'Poverty is going to be with us, it will always be with us. There will be better times or worse times,'" he said in a January 2014 profile the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote to mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.

Smeeding also looks at poverty and economics from a cross-national perspective. He was the founder of the Luxembourg Income Study, a research center and cross-national data archive located in Luxembourg.  One of the archive's two databases includes income microdata from many countries at multiple points in time. The other houses wealth microdata from a smaller selection of countries. Both incorporate labor market and demographic information. The LIS data play an essential role in research at the University of Stockholm, especially in studies of social, economic and health-related inequality, the university said in its 2008 announcement that it was giving Smeeding an honorary degree.

For La Follette, he teaches a course on comparative and national social policy. Students can write about whatever they wish for their research papers, and many choose Wisconsin topics for their policy analyses and reports. Others tackle national or international projects. "My students in that class have won three of the last four Penniman Prizes at graduation for the most outstanding paper," he notes.

For his own current research, Smeeding is working on the Building Human Capital and Economic Potential initiative, an IRP conference July 16-18 in Madison. "I am examining low-wage labor markets and low-wage jobs," he says. "People in those jobs need public supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to make a package that, with their low wages, lifts people up to the poverty level.

"The answer to poverty," Smeeding emphasizes, "is good jobs for most able-bodied people. Although Americans tolerate unequal incomes, they want their kids to have a chance," Smeeding says. "Americans also believe equality opportunity, and we don't have that now. The kid who starts at the bottom has a harder time — than when I was a kid — moving way up."

"We need to think about how we can promote economic independence and self-reliance," he adds. "How can we build economic self-sufficiency among working families and the disadvantaged, while simultaneously meeting the labor demand needs of employers, through policies and programs that increase labor market skills, employment, wages, and earnings?"