This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab, a consortium of six news outlets covering northeastern Wisconsin.
Over the past seven months, journalists across six newsrooms in the NEW News Lab consortium have talked with northeast Wisconsin families about hurdles they face.
Across 21 stories, families have shared their struggles to secure child care, feed their children, connect with mental health resources and cope with rising senior care costs.
Additionally, families and the people working in the industries they interact with have told us what they would like to see done across the state to alleviate their struggles.
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Bolstering child care offerings
One of the biggest issues families emphasized was the struggle to access child care.
The Post-Crescent reporter Madison Lammert and Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Jeff Bollier talked with families who said they paid more for child care than housing, sat on long waitlists at centers and timed pregnancies around child care openings.
The child care industry is currently backed by a pandemic-era program called Child Care Counts, which has stabilized access to child care statewide and supported child care workers with recruitment and retention efforts. The program is set to end in early 2024.
Gov. Tony Evers in his executive budget proposed extending the program, and Democrats on the Joint Committee on Finance proposed allocating $340 million to extend the program in the biennial budget, but Republicans who control the committee blocked the effort.
Child care providers we spoke with said the program was vital to keeping the industry afloat, and a lack of sustainable state funding will force them to significantly increase their rates, lay off staff or close their centers.
Evers’ Child Care Counts program is off the table, but Republican lawmakers proposed their own package of bills to alleviate Wisconsin’s child care crisis. It would decrease required staff-to-child ratios, allow 16-year-olds to take on more roles in child care centers and create loan options for licensed child care providers to make facility renovations or improvements.
During an Assembly hearing on the bills, most child care providers and advocacy groups opposed the measures, though some welcomed more flexibility for their operations amid workforce challenges.
The state Department of Children and Families testified that changing the staff-to-child ratio could create safety concerns and lower the quality of care.
Assembly Republicans passed all the bills in September, but Evers and Democratic lawmakers have continued to push Child Care Counts funding.
School meals for Wisconsin K-12 students
During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, a pandemic-era program provided free school lunches for all students.
As those federal funds dried up at the beginning of last school year, Press-Gazette education reporter Danielle DuClos talked to school officials and families about how the end of the program left some families struggling to feed their kids and school nutrition departments underfunded.
As part of a broader $2.6 billion in new spending proposed by Evers in his budget was $120 million to provide universal breakfast and lunch for all Wisconsin students. Evers’ office billed the program as a way to improve student health and reduce hunger and anxiety among Wisconsin kids. It also would have made permanent the pandemic-era program that provided free meals to all students.
Republicans nixed it from the budget.
For the 2022-23 school year — and now the 2023-24 school year — caregivers were required to apply for free or reduced-price meals for their kids. Advocates say this administrative process results in kids going hungry in families that make just a few dollars more than the income thresholds.
Other states, like California and Maine, offer no-cost meals to their students. They used budget surpluses in 2022 to implement those programs.
Mental health resources for Wisconsin kids
Natalie Eilbert, the Press-Gazette’s mental health reporter, spoke with advocates for student mental health who described a drastic lack of providers in schools and long waitlists to see a counselor at a time when public schools are reporting a jump in students seeking mental health services following the pandemic.
In his 2023 State of the State address, Evers declared that 2023 would be “The Year of Mental Health” in Wisconsin — a promise he sought to fulfill, at least in part, by proposing $270 million for a student mental health initiative in Wisconsin schools.
The initiative would have made every Wisconsin public school eligible to receive funds “to go toward providing direct mental healthcare, hiring and supporting mental health navigators, and providing mental health first aid and trauma-based care training,” among other things, according to Evers’ office.
Once again, the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget writing committee dramatically pared back Evers’ proposal.
The final budget contained $30 million for school-based mental health initiatives — just 11% of what Evers proposed.
Support for Wisconsin seniors
As Wisconsin’s aging population nears its “Silver Tsunami,” USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter Benita Mathew spoke with residents in senior facilities experiencing the brunt of the staffing shortage crisis.
Residents told us how short staffing has left basic needs unmet, fueling a surge in condition complaints and calls from advocates to ease the worker shortage by boosting worker pay.
To address the issue, the budget lawmakers passed and Evers signed allocated $282 million over two years — a $10 million increase from the last budget — toward Direct Care Workforce Funding to help assisted living providers pay their direct care workers more.
This story is part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab’s fourth series, “Families Matter,” covering issues important to families in the region. The lab is a local news collaboration in northeast Wisconsin made up of six news organizations: the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton Post-Crescent, FoxValley365, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Journalism Department is an educational partner. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative.