21 Pros and Cons of Living in Wisconsin

The Badger State is best known for its cheese and its “cheeseheads” (football fans). For over one hundred years, the state has also been known for its progressive government which has used high tax rates to produce great schools and healthcare for its residents. The many benefits of the state are a reward to the people that can survive the Wisconsin winters.

When the Eerie Canal opened in 1825, there was a surge of settlers into Wisconsin, most of whom were immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. These folks became wheat farmers in the south and lumberjacks in the north.  Both industries flourished and Wisconsin cities expanded rapidly. 

Today, the state has a population of 5.9 million residents who mostly live (68%) and work (73%) in the 12 urban areas of the state. The rural areas of the state consist of mostly pine trees and cows. 

A staged photo showing the Wisconsin flag as the background and various milk and farm products in the foreground.

11 Benefits of Living in Wisconsin – Pros

1. Cheese, Beer, and German Food

In the mid-1800s, Wisconsin was home to thriving wheat farms and the lumber industry. But by the late-1800s, the state’s soil had been overused and the forests had been cut down. Residents began to look to dairy farming as a more sustainable industry, and the European immigrants had brought cheese-making practices over with them. Wisconsin would become “America’s Dairyland” and become famous for its cheeses. The state is the country’s leading producer of cheese and the second-largest producer of both milk and butter.

The German immigrants also brought over a rich history of beer making. The state had an estimated 160 breweries operating in the 1860s and more than 300 operating in the 1890s. After the end of prohibition, beer making became big business in Wisconsin, and the world came to know Wisconsin brands like Pabst, Miller, Schlitz, and Blatz. Today, the beer-making traditions continue as Wisconsin is a Top 10 state in the craft beer market. 

Folks looking to find authentic-tasting German food should give Wisconsin a try, as you will find one or more German restaurants in nearly every town. 

2. Festivals

When the Europeans emigrated from their homelands to Wisconsin, they also brought over their cultural festivals. Today, the state celebrates German-inspired festivals such as Summerfest, Oktoberfest, Polish Fest, Brat(wurst) Days, Polka Days, and many more. The state also has the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival and the Lumberjack World Championships.

3. Woodland Activities

Wisconsin’s natural forests were decimated by excessive timbering in the late 1800s. Thankfully, through one hundred years of conservation efforts, the forests have regrown. Today, 46% of Wisconsin (17 million acres) is covered by forest. Nearly 1/3 of this forest (6 million acres) is available for public access. 

Popular woodland activities in Wisconsin include hiking, camping, hunting, ATV riding, and more. In the winter, residents also participate in snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling.

4. Water Activities

Wisconsin has over 11K square miles (7 million acres) of water, the 4th most in the US. 

The State has over 1,000 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes (Lake Superior and Lake Michigan), providing the state access to drinking water as well as commercial and recreational activities.

There are also 15K documented lakes in Wisconsin, the largest being Lake Winnebago at 137K acres, and the deepest being Lake Wazee at 350 feet. The state has over 12K rivers and streams. The huge number of water features were created by the heavy Ice Age glaciers that used to cover the land. 

Popular water activities include canoeing, kayaking, white-water rafting, boating, sailing, water skiing, and much more.

The state is also a paradise for freshwater fishermen. There are  2,700 trout streams in Wisconsin and 160 different fish species including muskie, bass, and pike. Ice fishing is also popular in the winter.

5. Sports

A photo of an empty Lambeau Field with the Green Bay Packers football team plays.

Wisconsin is crazy about its sports and is home to professional teams in football, baseball, and basketball. The Green Bay Packers currently hold the record of the most football championships of any team. In 2021, Wisconsin hosted its first modern NASCAR race. 

The state is also big into college sports, especially the football and basketball programs at the University of Wisconsin.

6. Low Cost of Housing

The overall cost of living in Wisconsin is 10% less than national averages, driven mostly by the low cost of housing. The median house value in the state is $188K compared to the US median of $231K. Rental costs are similarly low at a median of $700 per month versus the US median of $1,100.

Salary averages in Wisconsin are identical to national averages; 28K per resident and $53K per household. Combined with a low cost of living, this means your dollar will go further in this state.

These reduced housing costs are available in most of Wisconsin’s areas giving residents the choice of urban, rural, woodland, and coastal living options. 

7. Decent Schools

Wisconsin public schools are ranked in the Top 25% for performance in the country. 77 of the state’s 400+ school districts receive an “A” rating, and over 75% of all the districts in the state receive at least a “B” rating. These highly rated districts are scattered throughout the state, giving potential residents many location options.

There are a small number of districts receiving poor rankings, so potential residents should, of course, research specifics of the areas they are looking to move to. Potential residents should also keep an eye on the political climate in Wisconsin as the state has been lowering taxes and cutting education budgets for the last decade.

8. Good Healthcare

Overall, the state medical system is regularly ranked among the Top 5 in the country and the best in the Midwest.

The best hospital in the state is the University of Wisconsin Hospital in the capital city of Madison. This hospital is ranked #28 in the country, putting it in the Top 10% of hospitals in the nation. The state has other good hospitals in its major cities, as well as in smaller towns like Eau Claire, Grafton, Wausau, and others.

9. Low Crime

Wisconsin ranks 12th in the country for crime, with all types of crime below national averages. The state has the lowest crime in the Midwest, having levels comparable to the top-ranked northeast states.

10. Great Colleges

A photo of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin. The bronze statue of Abe Lincoln sits at the front.

Wisconsin has 31 public universities within its state borders, enrolling 287K students. 

The state is home to the University of Wisconsin, which is ranked #12 (out of 691) for the Top Public Universities in America, and rating highly in both academic and student life categories. While the main campus is in Madison, the University has 13 branch campuses scattered across the state.

The University of Wisconsin has the 10th largest library in the country with nearly 12 million volumes; one of the few non-Ivy League schools to rank the in Top 10

11. Home of the “Wisconsin Idea”

Created by University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise in 1904, the concept turned the University system into a think-tank for government policies by having University experts serve in office, provide advice on public policy, as well as provide information and technical skills. 

This collaboration between the University and the state government generated progressive ideas such as:

  • The first statewide primary election system in the country
  • The first workplace injury compensation law
  • The first state income tax
  • The first unemployment compensation program

While today’s political climate has complicated the execution of the Wisconsin Idea, the concept is still at the heart of the University of Wisconsin’s mission. “The idea that the university belongs to the people of the state is pervasive, and the idea that it had better be contributing to its prosperity whether economically or by increasing quality of life is a very familiar idea, maybe even more so in Wisconsin than in other states”.

Related: Pros and Cons of Living in Madison, Wisconsin

10 Downsides of Living in Wisconsin – Cons

Wisconsin has some impressive benefits, but folks thinking about moving to the Badger State need to consider some of the downsides of the state.

12. Cold Winters

A boy stands in snow up to his shoulders, with an orange snow shovel in his hands

Wisconsin summers are cool and humid with temperatures averaging in the 60s and 70s, and with very few days of sweltering heat. This summer climate makes for some great vacation days.

However, the trade-off comes in winter, which is cold and wet. Average winter temperatures are in the 20s and 30s, with low temperatures frequently dropping below zero. The state goes through periods in the winter where the temps never rise above freezing and the snow never melts. Wisconsin gets an average of 48 inches of snow annually, nearly double the national average. 

Wisconsin residents may love their winter activities (Pro #3) but not when it is -30 degrees outside.

13. Lack of Diversity 

Wisconsin has the following demographics:

  • White 86%
  • Black 6%
  • Hispanic 6%
  • Asian 2%

And most residents have a European ancestry:

  • German 40%
  • Irish 10%
  • Polish 9%
  • Norwegian 8%
  • English 6%

75% of the state’s African Americans live in the city of Milwaukee and most of the remaining black population lives in the cities of Racine, Beloit, and Kenosha. Outside of these four cities, there is not much diversity in the population. 

14. High Taxes

Wisconsin has the 5th highest overall state and local taxes in the country at 13%, the highest in the Midwest and only behind Illinois and a few Northeast states. The state has the 6th highest property taxes, beaten only by the pricey Northeast states.

The current administration has been lowering the Wisconsin tax rates over the last few years (perhaps at the sacrifice of some of the Pros mentioned above such as school funding).

15. Alcoholism

Perhaps it is the German influence, or maybe because of the long and cold winters, but a high percentage of residents in Wisconsin seek comfort in the bottle. The state is ranked 2nd worst in the country for excessive alcohol consumption with 25% of adults admitting to binge drinking. 

It probably doesn’t help that the University of Wisconsin is rated the #3 party school in the country. 

16. Natural Disasters

Due to its unique geography and location, Wisconsin is prone to a variety of natural disasters. A large amount of lakes and rivers (Pro # 4) makes the state susceptible to frequent flooding. Due to climate change, the state is receiving more rain every year, and major floods are becoming more common. 

The flat land in the state’s south is right on the edge of Tornado Alley and the state gets about 20 tornadoes each year, mostly during the warmer summer. 

Due to the fact 46% of the state is covered in forest (Pro # 3), Wisconsin is prone to forest fires, averaging 742 fires per year.

Given the state’s harsh winters (Con #12), it is no surprise to hear that the state is at risk of heavy snow and blizzards throughout the winter. Storms producing a foot of snow appear to happen at least once a year. In some years, major storms can bring 2’-4’+ of snow. When the wind blows off the Great Lakes, blizzard conditions can occur, and snow can drift into massive piles large enough to cover a house. 

17. Great Lake Beach Erosion

Due to record snow and rainfalls over the last few years, the waters of Lake Michigan have risen three vertical feet. In addition to submerging land, the turbulence caused by occasional storms is destroying the shoreline across much of Lake Michigan; tearing away beaches and sand dunes, and leaving exposed, unprotected cliff-faces which then become even further eroded during future storms. 

18. Allergies

The southern half of Wisconsin, which is not densely forested like the northern half, is a perfect environment for ragweed to grow. As a result, the Madison area is in the Top 15% of the worst cities for allergy sufferers. 

19. The Cows Stink

A tanker truck spreads manure on a green field of grass.

Wisconsin, a.k.a. “America’s Dairyland”, has over 1.2 million milk cows within its border, the second-most in the country behind only California. Each cow can produce 120 pounds of manure every day. The math comes out to a total of 144 million pounds of manure produced every day within the state, or 52 billion pounds of manure per year. 

Where does all this poop go? Most of it gets spread on local fields as a fertilizer. Some of it gets dumped into giant manure pits. 

This poop problem can leave an entire rural town smelling like a cow outhouse and strong winds can even carry this smell into cities.

20. The Water Stinks

Farmers in Wisconsin spread and/or bury 52 billion pounds of manure each year. (Con #19) So it is not surprising to learn that rain flushes this manure (and its high nitrogen and phosphorus and ammonia) into the state’s waterways. The vast quantities of nutrients heading into the water causes blooms of toxic algae. 

Runoff pollution contributes to the fact that 380,000 acres of Wisconsin’s  lakes and reservoirs and more than 3,300 miles of streams and rivers are polluted and unable to support all the activities for which we rely on water: swimming, fishing, and supporting wildlife.” Overall, the state rates 40% of its lake waters as being in fair or poor condition. 

The manure and nutrients not only runoff, but they also drain down into groundwater. A 2015 study in cow-friendly Kewaunee County found that 30% of private drinking wells in the county had been contaminated by nitrates and/or E. coli bacteria. 

21. The Roads are Poor

The state ranks the 2nd worst in the country for taking care of the pavement conditions of its roadways. 

55% of Wisconsin’s major roads are in poor condition and 19% are in mediocre condition. This has been caused by the long-term underfunding of the transportation department. 

In recent years, the current administration has made tax cuts that have further reduced funding for road repairs.

 

Related: 21 Pros and Cons of Living in Chicago