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A survivor’s story

Norma Jean Vasser’s children grew up in Cairo when the schools, the restaurants and the swimming pool were segregated. She raised them when the historic Magnolia Manor — which once housed former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant — permitted blacks in the mansion only as workers. Now the historic home holds no appeal for the children whose parents were subject to decades of systematic racism, says Vasser, who has lived in Cairo 49 years.

In this difficult environment she raised her eight children, 31 foster children and one adopted child. She easily rattles off the years her kids were born, all within a decade.

Her husband brought home $49 a week to feed a family of 10. He was handy with a hunting rifle; she was handy in the garden. Then came the foster kids — the DCFS-official children and those unofficial boarders she would find some mornings asleep on her living room floor seeking sanctuary and supper.

Vasser was 53 when the latest needy child walked into her life. “Momma, I seen a baby walking down the highway,” Vasser’s son told her. A day later, a social worker brought the same wandering child, 3-year-old Cynthia, “just for the weekend.”

Cynthia was born in prison, has never known her mother, and her father died shortly after Vasser took her in. The little girl weighed 28 pounds. “You could count every bone in her back,” Vasser says. When the adoptive mom handed the child a Popsicle, the tot didn’t know what to do, forlornly watching the treat drip down her hand. Cynthia didn’t talk for three months. When she finally spoke, she requested peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — a stale stockpile was later found under the 3-year-old’s bed, the child’s response to a young life of hunger. That was 14 years ago. At 67, Vasser is raising a teenager.

The two live on 19th Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, next to the windowless Heavenly Gates Funeral Home. Vasser’s car sits idle on the lawn. It will take $400 in repairs to run again, money she doesn’t have.

Without the car, she can no longer serve as mentor in a regional program that links needy children with caring adults. A mentoring project recruiter describes Vasser — who took the children she mentored camping and fishing — as exceptional. But dependable transportation is a program requirement. Like the car standing sentry on her lawn, Vasser’s volunteering days were halted.

Vasser lives on $9,000 a year from social security, gets assistance from a county home energy program and “puts up greens” she discovered in an abandoned field at Horseshoe Lake just up the road. Taking a trash bag and a fishing pole to the swampy lake pays dividends in free greens and crappie, says Vasser. Neither she nor Cynthia is a big eater. “I’m a country girl who doesn’t have a steak-and-potatoes appetite.” Mother and daughter manage.

Like the broken car, her old washing machine “is done,” says Vasser. A clean toilet plunger and a bathtub are all she really needs, she says. A replacement machine wouldn’t work even if she could acquire one, she says. The old home doesn’t have the required 220 electrical line.

The lot next door is for sale, the familiar public auction notice nailed to a tree. Across the street, the former home Vasser bought for $700 is a pile of rubble. It caught fire three times — a kerosene heater, a cigarette and lightning were the culprits — before the ceiling finally called it quits and caved in. Next door to the rubble, lightning struck again just last month, damaging the home where her grown son lives.

Vasser’s current house, built in 1857 for $750, is older than the famed Magnolia Manor and Riverlore a few blocks away. But the homes in Vasser’s neighborhood don’t claim spots on the National Register of Historic Places. Like the fluctuating Cairo economy, the house was bought and sold dozens of times through its 146-year history — once for $50, another time for $300 —far below its original selling price.

She spent 10 years renting the four-room house, but Vasser’s landlord recently made her an offer: Buy the home for $5,000, no money down, continue the $224 monthly rental payments. She couldn’t lose. After two years, the home was Vasser’s, but so was the surprise $1,370 in back taxes, for which Vasser was legally responsible.
While teetering on the edge of poverty, in a city fighting foreclosure, this family matriarch perseveres. Says Vasser, “I’ve always had a roof over my head, food in my stomach and the good Lord at my side.”

Peg Kowalczyk

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Out of hiding

Poverty is on the rise in Illinois and increasingly visible. It can no longer be overlooked

by Stephanie Zimmermann and Peg Kowalczyk

It would be an easy bicycle ride down Lincoln Highway from the Lincoln Mall in Matteson to Rick’s Food & Liquors in Ford Heights. Just a tad over six miles, though the traffic in this far south suburban region of Chicago would be busy at the start.

In Matteson, middle-class shoppers buy cosmetics at Carson Pirie Scott, motorists gas up SUVs at Mobil, Citgo or Shell, parents fill shopping carts at Jewel and Cub Foods and executives dine at Olive Garden, Red Lobster or Fazoli’s.

As the road heads into Ford Heights, though, the scenery changes. The pharmacies and hotels cede to a currency exchange and a couple of corner stores selling cheap beer. There are no gas stations, no supermarkets — certainly not a bank. Vacant properties abound, as do burglar bars. This town of 3,456 is beset by formidable problems: unemployment, inadequate education levels and a lack of quality housing. Sociologist Pierre DeVise once called it the poorest suburb in America. In the last U.S. Census, Ford Heights earned the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage in America — 34 percent — of households headed by single mothers.

Gloria Bryant, executive director of the Ford Heights Community Service Organization, has been battling the town’s problems for more than three decades, starting as a volunteer and working her way up. Child care classes, computer training, a food pantry and other programs Bryant coordinates aim to bridge the gap between welfare reform and a lethargic economy. But jobless men still mill about outside the community center, which also draws residents of such neighboring towns as Sauk Village and Lynwood.

Neighborhoods in Ford Heights, once filled with tidy homes populated by blue-collar workers, are pockmarked by sagging porches, potholes, vacant lots and uncollected garbage, monuments to the region’s economic tailspin. Half of the residents ages 16 and over are unemployed. One in four households makes less than $10,000 a year. Ninety-six percent African American, the town is a symbol of racially concentrated, female-headed poverty in America.

“Without some supportive services, they’re going to continue to remain at the bottom of the economic scale,” says Bryant, speaking about the single moms she works with. “Some of them feel like, ‘What’s the use, I’m never going to work out of this situation.’”

About 50 miles north and west, in wealthy DuPage County, another sort of poverty exists. It’s not as obvious as in Ford Heights. In DuPage, among the shopping malls, chain restaurants, glitzy office buildings and well-appointed schools there are concentrated pockets of poor and working poor residents. They moved there to take such service jobs as cashier or cleaner and can barely pay their rent. “There are folks who have gotten minimum wage jobs, and it’s tough to live on that,” says Roger Johnson, executive director of the DuPage County office of Metropolitan Family Services, a nonprofit organization.

Six hours down I-57 to the southernmost tip of the state, where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, is yet another pocket of Illinois poverty: Alexander County and its county seat, Cairo. There, amid crumbling 19th century mansions, a history of segregationism and steady economic decline have conspired to make Cairo one of the most impoverished places in the state. The city’s population has dwindled every decade since 1920 — from a high of 15,205 to the current low of 3,632 — prompting the principal of Cairo High School to advise the 1990 graduating class to leave.

“There is still no industry here and many still don’t have jobs,” says lifelong Cairo resident Sarah Gatewood, resource officer for the school truancy program. “People are in a state of depression.”

In the images they conjure in the minds of Illinoisians, Ford Heights, the suburbs of DuPage County and Cairo are about as different as three places could be. But like dozens of other locales in Illinois, they are faced with the problems of poverty and the challenges of making welfare reform succeed. The aggravating factors may vary — from a lack of child care in Ford Heights to unaffordable housing in wealthy DuPage to a failing local economy in Cairo — but there are common threads.

“Whether you’re poor in Ford Heights or you’re poor in Alexander County or you’re poor in DuPage County, everybody wants to hide you,” says antipoverty activist Doug Dobmeyer. It’s hard for most Illinoisans to understand how entrenched poverty is, “and if they don’t understand, they can ignore it.”

After several years of improvement, the percentage of Illinois families at or below the federal poverty line is again increasing, to almost 12 percent of the population — or nearly 1.5 million Illinoisians — last year, according to the 2002 Report on Illinois Poverty by the Illinois Poverty Summit, a diverse group of political, business and nonprofit leaders that convenes annually to find ways to end poverty. Thirty-nine of Illinois’ 102 counties have a serious problem with poverty, the report concludes.

The depth of poverty in this state gained national attention last September, when, in a page one story, The New York Times profiled Pembroke Township in Kankakee County as one of the poorest areas in the nation.

Experts caution that the number of families struggling financially in Illinois actually is much higher than the numbers reveal because the federal poverty threshold of $18,400 for a family of four is much too low to be meaningful, especially in places where housing and other basic needs are expensive. Many social service agencies use 185 percent or even 200 percent of the poverty rate to determine who qualifies. With that income, “you’re probably still really struggling to make ends meet,” says Amy Rynell, director of the Heartland Alliance’s Mid-America Institute on Poverty.

The good news is that Illinois’ public aid rolls have dropped by about 76 percent since welfare reform began in the mid-1990s. But that advance also has increased the ranks of the working poor, many of whom have multiple jobs yet must endure high housing costs, poor transportation, no health insurance and substandard child care.

“The issues just pile up on you,” says John Bouman, deputy director for advocacy for the National Center on Poverty Law, based in Chicago. “Many of the people who used to be on welfare and are working are still in poverty and they’re staying there.”

In downstate Cairo, 47 percent of children live in poverty, according to the 2000 Census. Alexander County’s poverty rate of 26.1 percent was the highest of any county in the state, and its infant mortality rate of 15.4 percent from 1998 to 2000 was the state’s second-highest.

The Elias Ace Hardware in Cairo is open, but the Shell is closed. The Washateria is open, but the CutMart has closed. There is no McDonald’s, no Burger King, no Arby’s. There is no recreation center, no bowling alley, no movie theater. The Spirit House — for liquor — is open, but the Christ Temple — for souls — is closed. Churches are for sale, prices reduced. The Martin CME Temple on Poplar Street is available, its public auction sign nailed to a dead tree stump.

Congregating in the streets is now the recreational pastime. At 24th and Sycamore, a former swimming pool is permanently filled with concrete and grown over with weeds, the city’s response to court-ordered integration.

In Cairo, the issue of poverty can’t be separated from the issue of race. Gatewood remembers when the city’s black citizens couldn’t get work in white-owned businesses and when rural whites from Kentucky and Missouri were hired instead of local blacks. She recalls when the Illinois National Guard was called into Cairo in 1967 to quell racial violence.

A coalition of black organizations formed the United Front of Cairo in 1969, and the community sustained a three-year boycott of white-owned businesses. By 1971, there was nothing left to picket. Downtown businesses had closed.

“When the smoke cleared, we still had nothing,’’ says Norma Jean Vasser, who has lived in Cairo for nearly 50 years. “White businesses closed their doors rather than integrate.’’

Preston Ewing, Cairo’s city treasurer and resident historian, doesn’t have unrealistic expectations for the city that once boasted seven railroads and attracted shoppers from across the southern Illinois region. “Our goal should be to stabilize Cairo, not talk about growth,” he says. “Potential employers will go where there is greater viability and an infrastructure to support businesses.”

Similarly, in Ford Heights, decades of poverty have created a situation that is difficult for residents to escape. Once a stop for fleeing slaves, later a farming community and finally a largely working class suburb of African Americans who worked in the area’s auto and steel industries, the former East Chicago Heights began to falter in the 1960s.

Federal public housing programs rapidly drew large numbers of impoverished black Chicagoans to town, and that, coupled with the region’s economic decline, severely strained the community. Because Ford Heights has become synonymous with poverty and crime, it is not on the A-list of most businesses looking to relocate. And residents who do find success frequently move away because the housing stock is so poor.

That’s what Gloria Bryant did. After living in Ford Heights for 48 years, she finally moved south to Crete, where the housing choices were better.

“Those who become upwardly mobile in some manner normally move out of the community, and they are replaced by other people who are low-income like they were,” Bryant says. “The community changes, but somehow, the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Bryant is hoping some of the single moms who take the computer and child care classes at the community center will one day become self-sufficient. But they and their children won’t have an easy time. Statistics show it’s much harder for families to pull themselves out of poverty when there’s only one wage-earner.

Of Illinois children who were living in poverty between 1998 and 2001, 61.6 percent were in a female-headed household, the Illinois Poverty Summit report says. And those youngsters are less likely to do well in school. At Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, educators managed to get 28.2 percent of the students to meet or exceed state testing standards in 2002, after a dismal showing of just 11.6 percent in 2001. What Ford Heights offers is a community of strong people, Bryant says.

Meanwhile, DuPage County, with its high-tech industry and pricey homes, doesn’t suffer this reputation. But, like some other wealthy counties in Illinois, its poverty rate is quietly climbing. Though still low in proportion to the entire county’s population, DuPage’s poverty rate increased 33 percent, from 2.7 percent of the population in 1989 to 3.6 percent in 1999. In the community of Addison, the poverty rate more than doubled in that period, from 4.7 percent to 9.6 percent. In addition, there are 50,000 working poor households in DuPage County (defined as people living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty rate), according to the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform.

Low-income residents in places like DuPage County are forced to choose between paying their rent or going to the doctor, living in a safe home or having child care, keeping the phone on or having enough food. An estimated 45,000 to 63,000 people in DuPage, for instance, have no health insurance. And between January and March of last year, an average of 8,424 DuPage County households turned to food pantries each month.

DuPage has job opportunities — but many are service jobs that don’t pay a living wage. It’s pretty much impossible for a family of four to live on a minimum wage salary in Illinois, assuming 30 percent of the household’s income as a benchmark amount for rent. In DuPage County, a person would have to earn at least $15.15 an hour — almost three times the minimum wage — to afford a two-bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $788, the county’s fair-market average, according to the DuPage Federation.

Further, traveling from work to school to day care and to the doctor’s office can be a nightmare for impoverished suburbanites, says Johnson of Metropolitan Family Services. “There’s not a bus system that operates on a grid. If you’re in an apartment complex somewhere, you can really be isolated.” And owning a car can eat up a lot of money. Workers making $12 an hour spend about 20 percent of their income on transportation; minimum wage earners ($5.15 an hour) spend about 45 percent.

The working poor can seem invisible among the affluent suburbs of DuPage, says Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation. “We call that ‘DuPage Syndrome.’ People think the streets here are lined with gold. And they aren’t.”

Whether it’s poverty in Ford Heights, Cairo or the suburbs of DuPage County, if society expects people to get off welfare — and studies show families do better once people are back in the workforce — Illinois has to offer support to lift them from being “working poor” to the next level, says Dan Lewis, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston and director of the university consortium that administers the Illinois Families Study. That study is following more than 1,100 poor Illinois families to see how they are faring under welfare reform.

“You can declare victory when you get people off public housing, you can declare victory when you get people off welfare, but you’re wishing them luck in their ability to take care of themselves and their kids,” Lewis says.

Illinois has done some things right, Lewis says. Some of Illinois’ welfare reform policies are considered moderate or even generous when compared to other states’: For example, Illinois allows “stopped clock” exceptions for people who work 30 hours a week, attend college or meet other requirements, helping them avoid reaching their 60-month lifetime limit on receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Its Work Pays program ignores two-thirds of the worker’s job income when determining how much assistance he or she will receive. Illinois also offers subsidized health insurance for kids in families with incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty rate.

Those supports must continue — and be strengthened, argues Lewis.

Policy-makers, he says, shouldn’t forget they have an obligation to make sure those families who have been pushed off welfare don’t fail.

Those fighting poverty are crossing their fingers that having Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his fellow Democrats in power in Springfield will help their cause — though no one is counting on a lot of extra dollars for social services, given the state’s dismal financial situation.

Lewis has advice for the new power base in Springfield: “The main point that I’d make to the governor is don’t be short-sighted in terms of quick fixes,” such as cutting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid or other supports, he says. “Those investments are what make low-wage earners able to stay in the workforce, and that’s where we want them.”

But Lewis is realistic. “If the governor and the General Assembly go out and do a lot of taxing and spending, there won’t be a Blagojevich II.”

Gov. Blagojevich, after running a campaign heavy on a theme of helping working people, does favor some supports, such as an increase in the minimum wage, which spokesman Billy Weinberg says will send dollars flowing into the economy faster than a tax cut for upper-income earners. The governor also favors increased child care and senior care programs. But specifics are taking a back seat, for now, to dealing with the state budget deficit, which the governor says could reach $4.8 billion by the end of this next fiscal year.

“I think that anyone who is really committed to welfare reform understands that you do have to, to a certain degree, provide people with the tools they need,” Weinberg says.

In Ford Heights, Gloria Bryant tries to stay away from political prognosti-cating. She’s too busy filling out grant applications.

“Politicians are people. I don’t care what label you put on them,” she says. Now, all she can do is hope.


Illinois Issues, March 2003

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