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Thursday, March 12, 2015 12:01 am

Rising child poverty makes it a bad time for budget cuts

PHOTO BY Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel/TNS
One in four children in Sangamon County lives in poverty, according to one group warning of dire consequences if Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget cuts are implemented.  

On March 5, Voices for Illinois Children released its annual Illinois Kids Count report, detailing a sharp increase in poverty among families with children thanks in large part to the Great Recession. The report was accompanied by an announcement from a group of Chicago-area lawmakers that they would seek an expansion of a tax credit aimed at low-income families.

Child poverty in Sangamon County rose nearly twice as fast as the state average, between 1999 and 2012, according to Voices for Illinois Children. Thirteen percent of children in Sangamon County – about 6,130 total – lived in poverty in 1999, compared with 25 percent, or 11,457, in 2012. Statewide, the child poverty rate rose from 14 percent to 21 percent over the same period.

The statewide poverty rate of 21 percent means one in five children in Illinois – about 600,000 total – lived in households below the federal poverty level as of 2013, according to the report. That represents an increase from 15 percent in 2000 and 17 percent in 2007.

An additional 600,000 Illinois children lived above the poverty measure in 2013 but still in low-income households making less than twice the poverty level. That means 40 percent of children in Illinois face increased risks of hunger, illness, domestic abuse, depression and other negative factors impairing a child’s success, the report says.

The report is full of similarly dispiriting statistics that illustrate a growing income divide. Poverty among children of color is disproportionately high. More than 40 percent of single-mother families live in poverty. More than half of all Illinois children enrolled in public schools live in low-income households making less than 185 percent of the poverty level. The list goes on.

Emily Miller, director of policy and advocacy at Voices for Illinois Children, says despite the ongoing economic recovery, low-income families are unlikely to see the same recovery because earnings haven’t kept pace with inflation, among other reasons.

“Low-income families are less able to pull themselves up after a recession,” she said. “That’s why you’re seeing the numbers (of children in poverty) not being reduced. Low-income families don’t have the tools that they need to rebound. The economy may rebound, but they’re not rebounding.”

In response, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, and three other Chicago-area Democratic lawmakers said they would seek to expand the state Earned Income Credit, a tax credit adopted in Illinois in 2000 to supplement the federal credit of the same name. Eligibility is based on income and family size, and the state EIC provides a refund equal to 10 percent of whatever a family receives from the federal EIC. Currie and other lawmakers propose increasing the credit by two percentage points every year for five years, ending at 20 percent.

Miller says deep budget cuts proposed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in February would devastate low-income families with children. Asked which of Rauner’s cuts would be detrimental to children, Miller and Currie together said, “All of them.”

Miller and Currie explained that cuts to programs like assistance with heating bills and hospital reimbursements for treating low-income families may not directly affect children, but they leave less money in the pockets of struggling families.

“There are really common-sense things that you don’t pull out from under people who are trying to just make it through every day,” Miller said.

Currie noted that Rauner’s budget proposal does include some new money for education, but she called it “not much more than a drop in the bucket” compared to cuts elsewhere.

“I think we have a responsibility to children,” she said. “I don’t know that the governor’s overall budget proposal really meets the needs of the children in this state.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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