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Wisconsin Education Program Provides Skills to Fight Poverty

Poverty is expensive. Society pays a high price when people who can't afford health care get sick, when they don't earn to their potential and contribute to the economy. In Wisconsin, where more than one in ten people live in poverty, an education program is decreasing that number by investing in people.

The causes of poverty are complex, but among the major factors are a lack of job skills or education that restricts people to unskilled, low-wage jobs. Many caught in poverty's vicious circle put in long hours working at low-paying jobs, so they don't have the time or the resources to improve their qualifications and find a better job. That's where the Skills Enhancement training comes in. It's run by Wisconsin Community Action Program, or WISCAP.

"The Skills Enhancement Program started to help low-income households get additional training and education so they could apply for and get better paying jobs with better benefits," CAP's Jonathan Bader says. Participants attend classes at local technical colleges for training in a wide range of occupations.

"About 70 percent of our graduates are looking in healthcare areas," he says. "Many of them are certified nursing assistants. Some are in other specialized health care areas. About 30 percent are in non-health care [fields], which will include things like accounting, truck driving and other areas like that."

For many trying to gain new skills, cost is a big obstacle, so Bader says the program offers participants financial assistance with tuition and books.

"It also provides payment for transportation and for childcare that's needed to attend those classes," he says, adding noting that 90 percent of the participants are women and 80 percent are single parents.

The Skills Enhancement Program began 15 years ago as a pilot social program in one Wisconsin county.

About two years ago, the state of Wisconsin was very impressed with the results and expanded it to cover about two-thirds of the state.

Bader says the program has a significant impact on its graduates' financial prospects.

"What we are finding is that the graduates from the program are earning an additional $10,000 a year," he says, adding that's about a 90 percent increase in their annual earnings.

"We're finding about a 400 percent increase in their access to employer-sponsored health care, compared to when they entered the program. So we make this initial investment in families through their education and training, but the return on this happens year after year after year."

The benefits go beyond improving the participants' financial situation, according to Lori Olson Pink, a community service coordinator in Dodgeville County. Since the program was introduced there two years ago, she says, it has helped over dozen people turn their lives around and set a positive example for their kids.

"We had one young woman who was a single parent of one small child living in subsidized housing," Pink says. "This woman was receiving a full economic assistance package that included daycare assistance, food stamps and [health] care. She was working 13 to 16 hours per week at $6.50 per hour. She really recognized the need to provide a role model for her daughter, as well as eliminate her need to rely on public assistance programs. She completed her skilled-nursing program. She just feels like she got her life back."

Another participant, she says, has also experienced the liberating feeling of being in control of his life, after years of being unable to provide for his family.

"He completed his program, secured a position where he was making $4.50 per hour more," she says. "As a result he was able to take his small family and live independently, and provide for them in a way he had not been able to do for the two years prior to that."

Pink gives the participants credit for the program's success. "They really have to sacrifice a lot in order to complete their training program at the same time they are taking care of a family, at the same time they are working a part-time job. So the success is theirs."

That success has encouraged some private organizations and businesses to sign on to help finance the Skills Enhancement Program.

CAP's Jonathan Bader admits there is no easy solution to poverty. Investing in people, he says, may take a long time, but it pays tremendous dividends both for the individuals given that chance, and the whole community.