Dan Veroff, extension specialist in the area of demographic information at UW-Madison, presents information on poverty in the Northwoods at the Feb. 11 League of Women Voters of the Northwoods meeting.
2/18/2020 7:30:00 AM LWVNOW explores poverty in the Northwoods
Stephanie Kuski River News Features Reporter
While for some election day simply means an extra trip to a polling location, volunteers with the League of Women Voters of the Northwoods (LWVNOW) have been registering and educating the public several months in advance of today's election. The LWVNOW also provides resources to educate the public on various topics which concern the ballot box, including issues like poverty in the Northwoods, which was the topic of their Feb. 11 meeting at the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) of the Northwoods.
Dan Veroff, extension specialist in the area of demographic information at UW-Madison, and Melinda Osterberg, community development educator for Lincoln and Marathon counties, presented information about poverty in the Northwoods and facilitated a discussion on ways to implement solutions.
Osterberg said UW-Extension provides assistance and community-based education across the state, so when the LWVNOW asked for assistance, they were happy to help.
"We're taking our experts in Madison and bringing them to our communities," Osterberg said.
"The League indicated that their overall goal for the event was to know who is living in poverty, who is most affected and then what sort of programs would help that population."
To meet that goal, Veroff presented statistics on poverty in Northwoods counties and Osterberg facilitated a solution-based discussion on issues members in attendance said were of concern to them.
Veroff studies the impact on population growth and change in rural Wisconsin cities. His research centers around demographic data of diversity in Wisconsin and the impact of immigration on rural community change.
He works closely with county and regional educators like Osterberg and upon request, will travel across the state to facilitate workshops and presentations like the one held last week.
"We work with local educators on what population growth and change mean in terms of social and cultural learning," Veroff explained.
Veroff said he examines data compiled from state and federal sources and synthesizes that information into user-friendly terms so that people can use that information locally.
His presentation was structured as an informal, question-and-answer session in which audience members were encouraged to ask questions or to follow up with a response or observation.
Veroff said his goal was to stimulate a dialogue about what the data means and brainstorm ways to make positive change moving forward.
"The next steps are up to the people in this room, to a certain extent," Veroff said.
In the first half of the presentation, Veroff presented data which showed that the poverty rate in Northwoods counties has declined in the past decade. But he also said the way poverty is defined changes how one interprets the data. For example, there are often different definitions of poverty for different purposes and among different organizations. But Veroff found that participating in a federal food program is a better indicator of distress than the poverty rate according to many definitions, because if people are enrolled in a food service program, it's a good indication that there is a need present.
His research found that 8% of seniors in Northwoods counties are living in poverty, with the highest percentage in Florence County.
It was also noted that seasonal workers earn low wages on top of a low federal minimum wage.
But Veroff also stressed that while the numbers tell a story of their own, it's also important to talk with service providers as well as the public to collect more anecdotal information outside of the data they've collected. He said that in talking with people living through these experiences to understand what it's like, as well as the different conditions and perspectives of poverty, researchers gain better insight and can find innovative ways to move forward.
In the second half of the presentation, Osterberg facilitated a group discussion about ways to utilize the information Veroff presented.
Lack of access to low-income housing for young couples and families as well as high rent prices in this area compared to surrounding cities were topics of concern for the audience. With the low minimum wage and high rent in this area, Veroff's data suggests that some families are spending half of their monthly income on rent alone.
In searching for solutions to the problems presented, Osterberg suggested the possibility of various housing incentives and programs.
Other issues of concern suggested by the audience included senior transportation, health care, children living in poverty and the positive impacts small businesses can have on a small community.
Catherine Wiechering, a spectator at the meeting, said she found the presentation interesting because it presented demographic information specific to this area. She said it was useful to have the charts interpreted by an expert like Veroff to generate a discussion which tackled issues that were important to audience members.
She pointed to issues such as the inadequate transit system and lack of healthcare providers in the area.
"(Veroff's) charts really opened your eyes to poverty in the Northwoods," Wiechering said.
Sarah Olson, board member of the LWVNOW, said she found the Q&A format worked well and generated a thought-provoking discussion.
"I am very pleased with the way it's turned out," Olson said. "I'm impressed with UW-Extension and the resources they have, and that they're able to come share it with us."
She said the topic of this month's meeting was difficult, but one that has been brought up in the past. With a complex subject that presents multiple angles, Olson said it was helpful to have an informal format in which audience members could ask Veroff for clarification, or could follow up with a statement to point the discussion in a different direction.
"Part of our mission is education," Olson explained. "This, we feel, is educating the voters on some of the issues going on in the Northwoods."
"If we have more voters and more informed voters, I think it's going to be a better democracy and government structure," Olson added.
Louise Schotz, secretary of the LWVNOW, noted that the League is committed to educating the public regardless of their political opinions.
"All of us who are members of course have strong political feelings," Schotz said. "However, our function here is to get people registered to vote, to encourage them to vote and to educate them so that people can make better decisions."
In addition to education, the League also works to register the public and provide resources on the upcoming election.
Petra Pietrzak, a volunteer with LWVNOW, said the League sponsors several online resources in addition to their website which provides national, state and local voting information.
"Vote411.org is the League of Women Voters national website," Pietrzak explained. "It has all sorts of information about voting, including information about the candidates and their positions."
In addition, LWVNOW hosts monthly meetings and helps with voter registration prior to elections. Since the Northwoods chapter services Forest, Florence, Langlade, Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas Counties, the location of their monthly meetings rotate. The next meeting will be held March 25 at the Minocqua Public Library.
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