Wisconsin Policy Forum president discusses top five findings of 2021
The new year often prompts reflection on the past one, and one of the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s traditions is to take stock of their top five research findings of the last twelve months. Many of the 52 reports, policy briefs and data tools produced by the Forum were related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but other topics were explored as well.
"What we’re after in our top five are first of all, things that really are new and would cause people to think about issues or challenges in a different way," says Wisconsin Policy Forum president Rob Henken. "Also findings that really do demand a pretty immediate response, or at least thinking about a response from policy makers."
He shares the significance of 2021's top five takeaways:
UWM's Decline In Enrollment
In a follow-up report that was done in 2020, Wisconsin Policy Forum found that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is experiencing a significant enrollment decline. Henken says the school plays a very important part in Wisconsin's workforce and education ecosystem due to it being a research university.
"Declining enrollment, stagnant revenues, also impacts in terms of faculty, both numbers of staff and ability to retain staff all painted a pretty concerning picture. Again, not only for the state of higher education, but for the local economy."
Police spending was on a decline before 2020
The Wisconsin Policy Forum found that "defunding the police" has been on the decline even before 2020 and the murder of George Floyd. According to Henken, this could be for a variety of factors, such as state revenue limits, that really forced municipal leaders to cut police spending as a budgetary need rather than an ideological one.
"Very specifically, we found the 253 municipalities across Wisconsin, both big and small, and all corners of the state had reduced police spending between 2018 and 2019 — the year before anyone had heard of George Floyd."
Drinking has increased in Wisconsin since the pandemic
Unsurprisingly, another top find by the Wisconsin Policy Forum includes an increase in drinking since the pandemic started — a 16.6% jump. Henken also points out that Wisconsin has some of the lowest taxations on alcohol incidentally in the nation.
"The increase was from 63.3 million to 73.8 million in the 2021 fiscal year. So that's July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. Now, a 16.6% jump was really unprecedented. We looked back to 1972, and that was the only year that came close, and that happened to be a year when the tax rate on wine and liquor was raised, and actually, the drinking age was lowered, so you would've expected an increase."
Fewer students are applying for financial aid
Henken notes that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an obvious indicator of the percentage of high school seniors going to college.
The report done by the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows that the completion of those applications fell from 52.7% in 2019 to 46.4% in 2021.
"We also found that where there had been particular drops among students from historically underserved groups. Actually, prior to the pandemic, we have been seeing a little progress. So clearly something to continue to watch to see if there's any rebound as hopefully one of these days we return back to normal."
Milwaukee County Parks operated with less money in 2019 than 30 years earlier
The last top finding of 2021 by the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows the Milwaukee County Parks operated with less money in 2019 than 30 years earlier. It's no secret that the county parks have been experiencing fierce financial and staffing challenges for decades, Henken says.
He speculates that it's very unlikely that change will happen anytime soon. If it were, it would require partnership with the sewerage district, Milwaukee Public Schools, and other school recreational departments with nonprofit groups.
"Just to think that, you know, nothing changed in terms of the responsibilities and the in the volume of parks in the county had grown over over this 30 year period. Yet, without adjusting for inflation, the fact that the same amount of money was being spent to maintain the parks, I think really illustrated the challenge."