Even as one of the best places in the nation to 

raise a family, Wisconsin still has ground to cover

by Brooke Messaye

Houses similar in architecture line the streets like a town straight out of a dystopian novel. The smells of a fresh meal fill every crevice of the house as the chatter and laughter from family, friends and neighbors echo from wall to wall. Cars parked in the driveways gather dust, as bikes are sprawled across the front yard. 


As you drive through Madison’s Marshall Park neighborhood, three minutes away from the house lined street is a park with a view from the swings that overlook the water as the sun sets and the orange-yellow rays disappear into the distance. Across town in the Greenbush neighborhood, an elementary school is just blocks from a hospital.


Without having to leave the comforts of your neighborhood, it all seems right at your fingertips.


This is Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison is the best – officially

In 2022, WalletHub ranked Madison the ninth best city to raise a family in the U.S., based on the umbrella themes of cost of family fun, health and safety, education and child care, affordability and socioeconomics.


But seeing how Madison measures up reveals some hard truths about the community. On one hand, Madison scores well when it comes to conditions for raising a family, recreation and walkability. But in areas where studies are more likely to reveal gaps depending on race and socioeconomic status, such as the quality of education, affordability of child care and underemployment, Madison didn’t fare as well.


Milwaukee sees a similar pattern when it comes to measuring the quality of life, and it adds up to a Wisconsin paradox: While the state may be a great place for some families, others, especially those who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), see real differences in how life is lived here.


Really, there are two Wisconsins.


This idea stems from the work of Sue Robinson, professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW–Madison and researcher of journalism, media ecologies, and race and media. Robinson wrote a book in 2018 called “Networked News, Racial Divides: How Power and Privilege Shape Public Discourse in Progressive Communities.”

This graph shows the differences between Madison and Milwaukee in WalletHub’s “Best and Worst Places to Raise a Family” metrics. Through a compilation of 46 key metrics, each city is ranked on a 100-point scale, where 100 represents the most favorable conditions for raising a family. Graph by Brooke Messaye
This graph shows the differences between Madison and Milwaukee in WalletHub’s “Best and Worst Places to Raise a Family” metrics. Through a compilation of 46 key metrics, each city is ranked on a 100-point scale, where 100 represents the most favorable conditions for raising a family. Graph by Brooke Messaye.

In this book, she discussed the idea of there being “two Madisons.” While she raises her family in a nicer neighborhood where there are a plethora of resources and active friendly members of the community, Robinson recognizes her own whiteness and privilege and acknowledges that just a few blocks away, the situation can change drastically. 

“There is another Madison, and in this one, all of these metrics that are so rosy for people who have white skin, instead show huge disparities for Black and Brown people because of basic opportunity debts, because these systems were not built for them to succeed – from graduation rates to the school-to-prison pipeline to access to affordable health care to well-paying jobs,” Robinson says.

The schools and the views

Michelle Hellrood is a Wisconsin native and has spent her entire life living in Madison, so choosing to raise her two kids where she grew up was a no-brainer. 


“I obviously wanted to stay close to family. I love the Madison community and everything it has to offer … from things at the university, the Geology Museum and Chazan and just walking around campus,” Hellrood says. “There is Picnic Point, and I think there’s a lot just to offer in general in the community, in terms of the lakes and the park system.”


Along with the many activities, the education systems were a huge draw for Michelle and her husband. Working in child care, she recognizes that there is a lack of high-quality services, but as kids grow and enter the school system, it gets better.


“I am a product of the Madison Metropolitan School District and UW–Madison, both my kids are,” she says. “I was super happy with my children’s experiences in both elementary, middle and high school here in Madison. I thought they offered a lot in terms of AP classes and extracurriculars.”  


Darcy Burke, mother of three girls and lifelong Wisconsin resident of 52 years, feels the same way about education in Madison.


“I would say our kids did really, really well with all of their opportunities in Madison schools,” Burke says. “I would say that we had really positive educational experiences learning-wise and enjoyment-wise.”


Burke’s fondest childhood memories stem from her summer days at the Memorial Union Terrace with her sister and family, dipping her feet in the steps by the water. A large part of the reason she chose to raise her family in Wisconsin is due to both the proximity to her family, and so that she could provide her children with some of the amazing experiences and opportunities she had.


“Having that community that I know and grew up with here in Wisconsin just sort of lent itself to bringing our kids up in Wisconsin and having that community neighborhood,” she says.

But not for everyone

This safe and friendly Wisconsin community isn’t necessarily the norm for everyone. 


Jada Young, a 21-year-old Black student from Milwaukee who now attends UW–Madison, looks back at her childhood and has decided she would “absolutely never” raise a child in Wisconsin. 


“There are the high rates of segregation in Milwaukee, and there are a lot of issues [there] that affect Black people,” Young says. “I would not want to raise Black children in an environment where they don’t have the resources to succeed.”


When she thinks back on her childhood, the memory that always comes up is the look of fear in her sister’s eyes as they dove to lay on the floor to hide from gunshots outside of their duplex. 


“They have a large amount of gun violence days in Milwaukee and plenty of other issues that I had to endure, and it would make me a terrible parent to make my kids live it as well,” she says. “And oh brother, you don’t even get me started on the schooling situation in Milwaukee. There’s a lot of issues with it that are both systemic and just a lack of care and control — and I went to one of the more privileged schools in my school district.” 


Other schools in the district didn’t have access to necessities such as clean water, locks on stalls and bathroom doors, and had metal detectors and police officers stationed on campus throughout the day, Young recalls.


Marcellus Lawrence, another 20-year-old Black UW–Madison student who grew up in Milwaukee, echoed Young’s feelings of not wanting to raise a family in a city with such a prominent racial divide and segregation, even going so far as to refer to his hometown as “Killwaukee.”


In order for him to live a shielded life at a young age and to academically thrive, his parents had to outsource his education.


“I felt like my worldview was always protected, so I never got a really accurate representation of what it was like early on, and I was only just able to figure that out in my late teens and early twenties,” Lawrence says. “After attending private and Catholic schools, in some sense I was removed from the ins and outs of what was happening on the street, but I then went to school in a public setting, during high school, and I got to see like what the world was really like from a totally different standpoint, and that is a community that I just wouldn’t put kids in.”


Kennedy Egerson, Milwaukee native and lifelong Wisconsin resident of 19 years, experienced many similar conditions regarding the schooling system and living conditions, resulting in her not wanting to raise her future family in Wisconsin. 


Egerson said her private school was sheltered from the community, which left her feeling like she didn’t fit in. When she transferred to a public high school she experienced what she felt was an absence of care by teachers and administration.


 “I think that’s one of the reasons why I wouldn’t raise my kids here, because it’s just, not really good education, it’s a high crime rate and it’s very segregated and then it just doesn’t seem like a place you can grow a healthy family,” Egerson says. 


This idea of the Wisconsin divide goes back to what Robinson writes about with the idea of  “two Madisons.”


“I see those ratings all the time, [that] Madison is the best place to live. It is like we have a really nice life,” Robinson says. “I hear stories of what it’s like if you’re not in that sort of white, middle-class, upper-middle-class privileged position. And I didn’t believe it at first.”


She looks back on memories of a variety of conversations with a Black friend of hers where every time her friend would speak about the racism she experienced, Robinson allowed her whiteness to block her view on other’s perspectives and experiences. 


It wasn’t until she was pulled over in the car with her friend for something that she had done for years that forced her to wake up and realize that the living situation and rankings even in the same city can change based on a person and their experiences. 


Her book then became what she calls “a story about race, and particularly Black and white, disparities in the education system,” which she worked on after going through her own personal racial journey. It allowed her to recognize and reflect on her experiences and how they can differ greatly from the experiences of those living in this “other Madison.”

Featured graphic by Zoe Bendoff.