Nicole Grapentine-Benton spent part of her childhood in Santiago, Chile, where the "huge skyscrapers and tiny shacks" sit side-by-side, the rich and poor "mashed up" together in an uneasy coexistence.
When she came to Madison to study at the UW in 2000, she found a much different world. "My impression of Madison is it was a very planned city and just very segregated," says Grapentine-Benton, who now lives in Florida. "It was very easy to spend most of my day seeing only college students and ignoring huge swaths of the population."
Timothy Smeeding, director of the UW-Madison's Institute for Research on Poverty, has a very different take on the wealth divide here. Madison, he says, is too small for the haves and the have-nots to be separated.
"In a big city, it's too big to care about the community - you're isolated from everyone else," says Smeeding, who notes that every day he drives by the location of a recent gang shooting. "In Madison, you're not isolated."
What might be most accurate is that Madison, with its Midwestern politeness, doesn't like to talk too much about wealth. There are certainly rich and poor people, but the city is not on the front lines of any sort of class war.
Madison has one of the highest median incomes - just above $50,000 - in the country. But it is not a town that flaunts its wealth.
"It's déclassé to act like you care [about money]," says one rich guy, who wouldn't speak on the record.
With the recent recession, the ranks of the poor appear to be growing and the middle class shrinking, according to latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the city, median income has dropped 8% over the past decade to $50,508 last year. Dane County's median income also dropped about the same percentage to $58,661, over the past decade.
The number of rich and very poor is increasing. In 2000, 1.5% of Madison - or 1,364 households - made more than $200,000. Today, about 4% or almost 4,000 households do. Meanwhile, those making $10,000 or less a year has grown from 9.7% 10.2% of the population.
If that trend continues, it will be a whole lot tougher to ignore the class divide.
How much poverty has grown during recent years depends on how you count.
The Census Bureau defines the official poverty rate using only cash income and calls a single person making $11,139 a year poor (a two-person household is poor at $14,218 a year).
By that standard, the Wisconsin poverty rate grew from 10.2% to 13.2% of the state's population between 2008 and 2010. Dane County's poverty rate is 12.3%. In the city, the rate is 17.9%.
The Institute for Research on Poverty uses a more comprehensive "Wisconsin Poverty Measure," which takes into account the existing safety net to see how people are faring. According to the institute's most recent report, "The official measure misses the effects of policy innovations such as the recent expansions of tax credits and increased access to food assistance undertaken in response to the Great Recession."
By this measure, poverty is rising more slowly in the state thanks to government assistance, increasing from 11.2% to 11.5% from 2008 to 2009. Smeeding's Institute advocates for raising the income level that is considered poor, but also including supplemental resources like earned income tax credits, BadgerCare and FoodShare assistance in the calculation. "You need to change both," he says.
And if you were to do both those things, he adds, it is not clear whether poverty would be up or not.
Dane County has an overall poverty rate of about 14%, according to the Institute. In Milwaukee County, 19.6% of the people are poor.
Smeeding says the rich and poor aren't at the extremes in Madison they are elsewhere. "The high end isn't as high, the low end isn't as low, but there is a low end," he says. "It's largely minorities."
Although there is some family money in Madison, the rich generally aren't old-money families, Smeeding says. "Most of it is from successful businesses." Many rich families have two incomes; some don't have children.
The rich here, Smeeding says, "support the Overture Center, they travel a lot, they live on Lake Monona. But they work their asses off."
That does not, however, mean they haven't benefited from society, he says. "The rich benefited from an education, for sure. Probably some startup money, maybe from the government. They benefited from the finance system. But they don't sit back and clip coupons."
The poor, on the other hand, are crippled by a lack of education and often by having children at a very young age. This explains why the age group with the highest level of poverty in the country and state is children. In Wisconsin, 13.4% of children are poor, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty. Among the elderly, 9.6% live in poverty, and 11.2% of adults are poor.
Smeeding says the high child poverty rate is due to poor, uneducated adults being more likely to have children, more likely to have them at a young age, and more likely to have them with more than one partner than those who have higher incomes.
"Here's the way it's supposed to be: You're supposed to complete your education," Smeeding explains. "Then you find a job, find a career. Then you find a partner. Then you make a plan. Then you have babies. It's the picket-fence, 1950s way."
Although research by the institute shows that the safety net is slowing the descent into poverty for many, Smeeding argues that there is only one clear way out of poverty: a good job. And Wisconsin - traditionally one of the largest manufacturing states - is struggling because manufacturing is not coming back.
"We don't live in a Mercury Outboard economy, we don't live in a Harley-Davidson economy," he says. "We live in an Epic economy."
But, he says, there can be job growth in the service industry.
"If you're bright and smart and work hard, you can make the service industry work for you," he says. "If the top end is pulling away, well, they spend money on things."
Class resentments sometimes bubble to the surface in Madison. In late January, Grant Frautschi, the son of Madison's most famous rich person, Jerome Frautschi, spoke to the Landmarks Commission about his family's proposal for a $10 million office building and plaza on the 100 block of State Street. It's a controversial project being met with resistance from many sides, but Grant Frautschi saw much of this as related to his family's wealth. His family has already given enormous gifts to the city: It spent well over $200 million on the Overture Center and has given to other institutions, including the public library and Madison Children's Museum.
"I hear many complain that they think the Frautchis can buy any landmark building and do what they want with it and tear it down," he told the Landmarks Commission. "That's not the case."
The opposition to the project would probably be as rigid no matter who was pushing it. But the perception that money buys privilege is hard to shake.
Allen Barkoff, an activist involved with Occupy Madison, proves the point when asked how he views wealth in Madison.
"The Frautschis, for example, spent, I don't know how many millions for the Overture Center, and now they want to develop the 100 block of State Street," he says. "On top of that, they want to have a private courtyard to keep out the riffraff. Those things don't really benefit the people at the lower end of the income scale."
Barkoff notes that Occupy Madison is currently housing several homeless people in tents on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue. But they'll be forced to move soon, when the site is cleared for redevelopment.
"There's nothing wrong with redevelopment. But at the same time they're doing that, they're not putting a whole lot of effort into people who are at the lower end of the scale," Barkoff says. "The city is really falling down when it comes to the most needy people here. The resources are not being divided up in a humane way."