This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab, a consortium of six news outlets covering northeastern Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network. Subscribe to our newsletter to get our investigative stories and Friday news roundup.
Wisconsin is defined by its families.
But all too often, families are defined by their struggles.
How often do you hear someone explain a core portion of their character and life’s trajectory by referencing something they or their parents had to overcome?
Whether it’s cost-of-living concerns, the cost of child care, the availability of needed resources or health care, or struggles to “break the cycles” of poverty, abuse or drug use, everyone has a backstory.
Those stories make us — and the state — who we are.
But families matter beyond just the walls of their home. They’re raising our next workforce, our next generation of teachers, leaders and neighbors.
And increasingly, they’re vanishing.
The national fertility rate has dropped to 1.7 (2.1 is considered necessary to sustain the country’s population) and almost half of nonparent adults told the Pew Research Center they likely wouldn’t have children.
This year, journalists of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab are exploring the hurdles families in the region face, what can be done to ease those pain points and why it matters to everyone.
The News Lab, presently in its fourth season, is composed of journalists at FoxValley365, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, The Post-Crescent in Appleton, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Journalism Department is an educational partner, and Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative.
The Lab’s mission is to “collaborate to identify and fill information gaps to help residents explore ways to improve their communities and lives — and strengthen democracy.”
“We appreciate the willingness of family members to share their struggles and triumphs, to strengthen the public’s understanding of core societal issues and support the exploration of solutions to improve the quality of residents’ lives,” said Andy Hall, coordinator of the NEW News Lab and executive director of Wisconsin Watch.
“Together, we will make Northeast Wisconsin, and the state, a better place to grow up in, and a better place to raise a family.”
Here’s what the News Lab has written about so far in our series on the challenges Northeast Wisconsin families face:
Child care cost, availability is major factor for parents
The series kicked off online March 29 with a report from The Post-Crescent reporter Madison Lammert and Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Jeff Bollier addressing the shocking — to nonparents, at least — fact that some families have needed to plan conception around child care availability in their area. Some child care centers have waiting lists extending well into 2026.
“I don’t know anybody who has kids in daycare who isn’t always a little bit seething about (the cost of child care),” Tyler Sjostrom, a parent of two from Appleton, said. “If you get a group of parents together and somebody mentions daycare, it descends into chaos really quick.”
Christina Thor, Wisconsin director for the advocacy group 9to5 – National Association of Working Women, prefers to think about what Northeast Wisconsin would look like if it found ways to address families’ child care needs.
“We’d bloom,” Thor said. “I feel like our workforce would boom.”
When the pandemic ended, so did free school lunches for some students
Press-Gazette education reporter Danielle DuClos took a look at what free school lunches during the COVID-19 pandemic meant for families in the region, and what awaited them when things “returned to normal” after the federal funds dried up at the start of the 2022-23 school year.
“The access to food is always top of mind for anybody who works in food and nutrition in a school district, but I think what the last two years have shown us is that we can see kids and not ask questions about their eligibility,” said Caitlin Harrison, the president of the School Nutrition Association of Wisconsin and the director of food service at the Elmbrook School District. “… And that puts our staff in an incredibly difficult position to have to ask a kindergartner or first-grader, ‘Do you have lunch money?’ And I get a little emotional about it because it’s so upsetting that our employees would have to do that.”
Harrison was in the unfortunate position of having to deny a family access to the free and reduced-price school lunch program because its income was $5 over the cutoff.
“That’s heartbreaking, right? Because you know that they need it, but unfortunately there’s checks and balances and things that we have to follow to keep our programs sound,” she said.
Mental health care for kids suffers from high cost, low availability
Natalie Eilbert, the Press-Gazette’s mental health reporter, wrote about her conversation with Amy DeBroux, a mother and parent-peer advocate with NAMI Fox Valley and other advocates for student mental health. Parents must contend with both the cost of mental health care and the lack of trained providers.
Mental health disorders are the most expensive conditions to treat among children age 5 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found in one study that having a mental health disorder added $2,874 a year to total health care costs. And a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, of the 100 million Americans that have some kind of health care debt, 20% is from mental health services.
Meanwhile, the American School Counselor Association recommends one school mental health counselor for every 250 students — a ratio that’s generally accepted across the country. The latest school-counselor-to-student ratio in Wisconsin, according to data from 2021-2022, was 378 to one.
“The challenge is getting into those appointments,” DeBroux said. “That’s the most frustrating part. If you tell a doctor your child has a heart murmur, there’s not going to be a yearlong wait time to get help.”
Volunteer clinic helps students get dental care
Access to dental care can be another issue for Northeast Wisconsin families. But an organization is making a difference in Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago counties.
AnnMarie Hilton, The Post-Crescent’s education reporter, talked to the people behind Tri-County Dental, a volunteer-driven dental clinic started 20 years ago by four local dentists in response to a need for dental care, especially among lower-income families.
Dental caries, the disease that causes tooth decay, is one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in children, affecting the permanent teeth of one in four preschoolers and one in six students ages 6 to 11, according to a December 2021 report from the National Institutes of Health. Poor oral health can lead to decay, oral pain, sleeping difficulties, speech problems, changes in behavior and difficulty eating.
“When you talk about trying to set up children for success, they have to be in school, they have to learn and if you’re in pain because of tooth issues … that can impact a lot of things,” said Lisa Hintz, Tri-County’s community outreach director.
What’s next in our series?
Topics already in the works include a follow-up on possible solutions to the child care hurdles brought up in the series’ kickoff, a closer look at the cost of living in the region and a series on “breaking the cycle” of generational issues that hold families back.
You can be part of it. If you have an issue you’d like NEW News Lab journalists to explore, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-262-3642 and leave a message with your name, what you’re calling about and phone number.
Taima Kern is editor of The Post-Crescent in Appleton, and business editor of The Post-Crescent and the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Reach her at 920-907-7819 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @TaimaKern.