A Look Back: Cheese, Change & Economic Growth

A lot has changed since I took office in 2011. Back then, Oprah was still on TV, the iPad was brand new, and cheese was yet to be recognized as Wisconsin’s official state dairy product. While Wisconsin’s love for cheese has remained constant (and was made official this year), the transformation of our state’s economy and the huge growth in opportunity over the last eight years has been nothing short of remarkable.


Eight years ago, unemployment in Wisconsin was over 8% and we had one of the highest tax burdens in the country. The previous governor and legislature had raided the transportation fund, the patient compensation fund, and even missed a payment to Minnesota for tax reciprocity. All this and Wisconsin was still in the hole more than $3.6 billion. Businesses were struggling, jobs were leaving, and Wisconsin ranked in the top ten worst states to do business.


We’ve come a long way since then. The most recent report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrates this huge economic shift. In 2010, unemployment was 8.3% and only one of Wisconsin’s 72 counties had an unemployment rate below 6%. Today, our statewide unemployment rate has fallen to a record low of 2.8%, the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the nation. But the comeback isn’t limited to Dane or Milwaukee County. Each and every Wisconsin county now has an unemployment rate below 6%, and 70 out of 72 counties have an unemployment rate of 4% or lower. Our economic comeback has touched every corner of the state. 


In fact, new analysis from the UW’s Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy found that Wisconsin counties with the highest unemployment and lowest incomes before 2008 have seen the greatest economic gains over the past decade. The report also found that the Wisconsin counties that were hardest hit by the 2008 recession have seen the largest gains during the recovery.


People and businesses across the world are taking notice. While our tax-and-spend neighbor Illinois lost 33,700 residents last year, we’ve steered Wisconsin in a different direction, lowering taxes, balancing budgets and gaining 22,500 new residents last year. In just 8 years we’ve gone from being one of the worst states to do business in to being in the top 10 best states for business. We’re welcoming new companies while Wisconsin businesses continue to grow and expand.


But with success there’s no shortage of people looking to sweep our progress under the rug. Some of these folks have been citing a recent report from a left-leaning DC think tank claiming Minnesota’s economy is outpacing Wisconsin’s. The Minnesota-based Center of the American Experiment set the record straight, calling the report “horribly misleading” and pointing out that it’s missing the most detailed and recent data. When these numbers are included, Wisconsin’s 11.9% GDP growth since 2010 outstrips Minnesota’s 10.9% by a full point. More importantly, Wisconsin GDP growth per person has grown 9.8% since 2010, more than four points above Minnesota’s 5.5% growth.


With all of these major changes offering Wisconsin families more economic opportunity than ever, now isn’t the time to pat ourselves on the back or sit back and relax. We’re making the most of our momentum and planning for future growth with new investments in rural broadband, grants for growing small businesses, and new tools like fabrication labs for career education in schools. Comprehensive welfare reform and expanded job training ensure that no one is left on the sidelines and that every person can make the most of Wisconsin’s historic gains.


Though some things (like our love of cheese) never change, I am so grateful for the remarkable economic change we’ve seen in Wisconsin these past 8 years. Prosperity only comes with hard work, and as we continue to make the tough choices required to balance budgets, lower taxes and invest in people, I’m confident that opportunity in Wisconsin will continue to grow.