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Ends and Means

WheelerPanel aims to free Illinoisans from poverty

by Charles N. Wheeler III

The new millennium has not been kind to many Illinois families who are struggling to make ends meet, pushing almost a quarter million more residents into poverty, researchers reported recently.

About 1 out of 8 Illinoisans — more than 1.5 million total, 526,000 of them children — were living below the poverty line last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. The poverty guideline, set by the federal government, was $21,200 for a family of four in 2008.

The poverty rate of 12.2 percent — up from 10.7 percent at the start of the decade — represented about 240,000 more people in poverty, according to analysts with the Heartland Alliance Social IMPACT Research Center.

More disturbing, almost 700,000 people were living in extreme poverty, defined as an annual income of less than half the federal poverty level, or $10,600 for a family of four last year.

Even families well above the poverty line lost ground in the 2000s, the data showed. Median household income in Illinois was $56,235 last year, down almost $4,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2000, a drop of almost 7 percent.

Nor are the hard times limited to only certain areas in Illinois. Using year-to-year changes in key indicators such as high school graduation rates, unemployment rates, teen birth rates and poverty rates, the center placed 70 of the state’s 102 counties on poverty watch or warning lists, from Winnebago on the Wisconsin border to Pulaski and Hardin along the Ohio River.

The current picture might be even darker, the researchers note, given that the census numbers were for 2008, and the economy has continued to slide since then, while unemployment in Illinois this year has risen to quarter-century highs.

“This data really reflects only a small portion of the recession, and we know that the economy got a lot worse since the data was collected,” center researcher Amy Rynell told The Associated Press. “This is an early look at the recession.”

Against this backdrop, Illinois has embarked upon an ambitious plan to dramatically cut poverty rates in the state. Leading the charge is the Commission on the Elimination of Poverty, a 26-member panel created by the General Assembly last year and charged with developing a comprehensive plan to reach the state’s ultimate goal: “that all people be free from poverty.”

Twenty of the commission members are to have experience in poverty-related areas, most as advocates for housing, anti-hunger, medical care, education, mental health services or similar anti-poverty causes. The others are public officials, including four lawmakers.

Initially, the panel is to craft a strategic plan that would cut the level of extreme poverty in the state by 50 percent or more by 2015. The plan has to take into account a number of factors, including access to safe, decent and affordable housing; to adequate food and nutrition; to affordable and quality health care; to quality education and training; to dependable and affordable transportation; to quality and affordable child care; to opportunities to engage in meaningful and sustainable work that pays a living wage; and to adequate income supports.

Although the legislation called for commission members to be named last year by the governor and the legislative leaders, only three were, all appointees of House Minority Leader Tom Cross, a Republican from Oswego. As a result of the slow pace of appointments, the panel missed a March deadline to issue an interim report and likely won’t be able to finish the strategic plan by year’s end, as the legislation provided.

Despite the delay, the commission’s work product is likely to carry some weight with lawmakers. Not only are the majority of its members linked to the leaders who appointed them, but the underlying legislation cleared both chambers without debate and with near unanimous support, 115-0 in the House and 58-0 in the Senate.

Easing their task, panel members won’t have to reinvent the wheel. Solid, research-derived strategies for reducing poverty have been developed. A National Governors Association briefing paper, for example, lays out a number of options that state leaders can pursue, such as broadening unemployment insurance to cover more part-time and low-wage workers, expanding earned income tax credits, combating predatory lending practices, increasing educational and job training opportunities for adults, and strengthening early childhood education.

And Illinois is not alone in taking a comprehensive approach to reducing poverty levels. In the last few years, more than a dozen other states from Maine to New Mexico have named similar commissions to address issues such as housing, education, health care, transportation and other obstacles that make it more difficult for folks to move up the economic ladder and out of poverty.

The rub, of course, is that most such initiatives require upfront investment, a real challenge for a state facing its worst fiscal crisis in history. But the long-term benefits are significant, especially for poor children.

“Poverty has tremendous negative consequences for families and children, as well as for the U.S. economy,” the NGA paper concluded, noting research that showed children who spent their first five years in poverty, compared with children who grew up in families with incomes more than twice the poverty level, were more likely to complete less schooling, earn less as adults, have poor health, face criminal charges and become a teen parent. Nationally, the cost of childhood poverty is an estimated $500 billion a year, according to the paper.

Given that return on investment, one hopes the poverty commission will have its blueprint ready to go by the time the Illinois economy recovers — and the governor and lawmakers finally get around to dealing with the state’s budget deficit — so that the second decade of the new millennium will be brighter for the state’s most vulnerable families.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, November 2009


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bullet Even families well above the poverty line lost ground in the 2000s, the data showed.

bullet “Poverty has tremendous negative consequences for families and children, as well as for the U.S economy.”
— National Governors Association paper