Safety Net Programs: COVID-19 Increases Demand Throughout Wisconsin

The COVID-19 crisis has increased unemployment and economic insecurity. Without the jobs and income they need to get by, Wisconsinites are increasingly turning to public supports such as BadgerCare (Medicaid) and FoodShare (“Food Stamps”). These programs have always protected people, providing access to health care and food for families throughout the state. In the COVID-19 economic crisis, these essential supports are even more needed.

Here, we consider trends in BadgerCare and FoodShare caseloads over the course of this current economic crisis. Unlike measures of income and poverty, which will not come out for more than a year, these caseload data allow a real-time look at increasing material need in Wisconsin and the distribution of that need at the county level.

The increases in caseloads are remarkable give the relatively stability of monthly enrollment that was the norm across 2019 and early 2020. Over all of 2019 and the first months of 2020, Wisconsin’s BadgerCare enrollment hovered at just under 800,000 per month. The state’s FoodShare enrollment maintained over 300,000 over the same period. In March 2020 (the month that marks the beginning of the COVID-19 The graph below shows changes in monthly enrollment for both programs, comparing the monthly enrollment to January 2019 levels. BadgerCare grows less than one percent across the months preceding COVID-19. But from March through June, enrollment grows consistently and dramatically. By June 2019, BadgerCare enrollment was 12% higher. FoodShare shows a slight downward trend across 2019 but grows starting February, but more strongly in March. By May 2020, the FoodShare case load was 11% greater than it had been in January of 2019.

View Demand by County

The dramatic impact of the COVID-19 economic contraction is evident in the real time economic data resources we have (for the latest on the economy visit State of Working Wisconsin). The unique contribution of these caseload data is their ability to provide some picture of the geographic distribution of the economic crisis. We turn now to trends in these caseloads at the county level. These data make clear that the economic impact of COVID-19 has been deeply felt all across the state.

County Trends in BadgerCare Enrollment between March and June

BadgerCare provides health insurance for low-income Wisconsinites. This is an especially important program in the context of increasing unemployment. People who lose their jobs often lose the health insurance that those jobs provide as well. As unemployment increased in recent months, BadgerCare enrollment has grown. From March to June, BadgerCare enrollment grew by 83,861 cases (an increase of 10.8%).

Across counties, however, the story is hardly uniform. Consider the state’s ten most populous counties, Milwaukee, Dane, Brown, Kenosha, Racine, Outagamie, Waukesha, Marathon, Winnebago, and Rock. The state’s earliest outbreaks were concentrated in these counties and we might expect some of the strongest evidence of dislocation and distress to be concentrated in them as well. We find some evidence of more intense impact in these counties: 8 out the 10 had higher rates of increase than the 10.8% state average. The other two counties, Rock and Milwaukee, were below the state average with increases of 10.6% and 9.5%, respectively.

But strong increases in BadgerCare enrollments are found in less populous counties as well. Only two of the state’s most populous counties – Dane and Waukesha – were in among the ten counties with the highest BadgerCare enrollment increases. A tiny numerical increase in Pepin County (from an enrollment of 10 to 15) put it at the top of the increase list. The second highest enrollment increase was Pierce County, its caseload going from 4,004 to 5,200 for a 30% increase. Juneau, Trempealeau, and Douglas Counties are the other counties with the highest increases in BadgerCare enrollment.

On the lower end, there are 11 counties that actually experienced a decrease in in BadgerCare enrollment over the period, and while most of these counties had average enrollments bellow 100 before the pandemic, three of them – Chippewa, Columbia and Burnett – all have over 1,000 enrollments in March and saw BadgerCare enrollment fall over the COVID-19 period.

In summary, it would appear that increases in BadgerCare enrollment are widely distributed across the state. Populous counties and smaller counties have seen dramatic increases. However, the few counties with decreasing BadgerCare enrollments over the period are small counties and those with minimal previous enrollment.

County Trends in FoodShare Caseload between March and May

FoodShare provides access to food for families in economic need. As families face economic insecurity, this support can help keep food on the table. The economic crisis of COVID-19 has brought nearly 50,000 new families in the state of Wisconsin into the program (a 15.3% increase in the caseloads of FoodShare from March to May).

As with BadgerCare enrollment, FoodShare increases appear to be strong in larger counties; six of the state’s ten most populous counties had FoodShare caseload growth above the state average. Unlike BadgerCare enrollments, however, all counties have shown an increase in FoodShare enrollments, with the smallest increase coming from Lafayette County with an 8.7% increase.

Also similar to BadgerCare trends, even though the most populous were largely above the state average of caseloads, many less populous counites posted the largest caseload increase in the state. Of the state’s ten counties that posted the largest caseload increases in the state, three are among the state’s most populous: Waukesha, Dane, and Outagamie. The other seven are more rural. Columbia County posted the largest increase, the FoodShare caseload there grew by 22.4%.


The COVID-19 crisis has had deep impact on the Wisconsin economy. We have turned to data on caseloads and enrollments for safety-net programs to get a real time sense of how workers in the state are making ends meet. The data here suggests that the economic dislocation from the pandemic has been felt all across the state.

By Pablo Aquiles-Sanchez