A Closer Look At Wisconsin’s Economy

Regional Variations in Jobs, Wages, and Incomes

September 2013


Focusing on short-term, statewide figures can mask regional variation and long-term trends in the state economy. During 2000-12, Wisconsin’s economy lost 1.4% of its jobs, while the nation gained 1.4%. Meanwhile, western and south central Wisconsin outpaced the state and nation in terms of job and population growth, while northern Wisconsin and the southeast, formerly the powerhouse of the state economy, lagged in both measures.

In the wake of a deep recession and a slow, uncertain recovery, the health of the Wisconsin economy has attracted much public attention and generated considerable political controversy. The debate typically revolves around recent statewide employment and income figures and comparing Wisconsin’s economic performance with that of other states.
Evaluating state economic progress from this perspective can be misleading. Relying on short-term, statewide information ignores both long-term trends and regional differences within Wisconsin—and is likely to result in flawed conclusions and less-than-ideal economic policies for the state.
This discussion takes a different approach to Wisconsin’s economic challenges by: (1) examining trends from 2000 through 2012, a period sufficient to cover the two most recent recessions and the fairly weak recoveries that followed; (2) exploring regional, and even county differences; and (3) analyzing a variety of measures, including population, and wages—not just monthly employment.
Some of the findings reported here might be expected; for example, the northern half of the state continues to struggle. However, others might surprise, including the relatively weak performance of southeast Wisconsin, traditionally a key to state economic success.

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