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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2005 01:00 am

Slim pickings

The latest trend? Poverty — and it’s on the rise.

Mal Freeman graduated from high school 10 years ago and still dreams of becoming a registered nurse. She’s looked into a nursing degree at Lincoln Land Community College that would take two years of full-time classes, but she’d prefer to spread the program out and study more carefully if the care of patients is to rest in her hands. “I’d rather be prepared,” she explains in a soft voice. “Going to school for four years instead of two, I get a good chance of working in a hospital. I’d have options.”
Freeman, a 28-year-old mother of four living in a Springfield Housing Authority development, southeast of downtown, will struggle more than most to realize her dream. Barely clinging to the poverty line, she and her husband of seven years are expecting their fifth child in November. The couple already has legal custody of Mal’s sister’s two oldest children, ages 8 and 11, in addition to their own
3-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds.
Her husband used to make $400 a week on the late-shift cleaning crew at a restaurant, but new management recently hired a different provider. Now he’s looking for a job. Freeman’s pregnancy left her too sick to continue as a part-time teacher’s aide for Springfield District 186, an on-call position paying $7.50 an hour with no benefits. Because the Freemans’ income depends on whatever work is available to them, their earnings occasionally touch the poverty line of $31,570 for their family of eight. More often than not, they live below it, managing to get by on some food stamps and a modest Social Security benefit paid for the sister’s children. This family is part of a rising tide of poor. The latest Census Bureau statistics reveal that 12.4 percent of Illinoisans lived in poverty in 2004. In 2000, the rate was 10.7 percent. Freeman was brought up not to complain, and she doesn’t think she’s been dealt an unfair hand. Her grandmother — who took her in at the age of 10 after her mother turned to drugs — taught her to appreciate the life she has, without envy or anger. “What you got in your house, you thank God for it,” she says.
Hurricane Katrina dumped poverty into the nation’s living rooms by pointing cameras at thousands of poor residents stranded on rooftops without the means to escape the rising water. Although poverty is more common in New Orleans than in many other cities, the plight of those on society’s lowest economic rung is hardly unique to that region. More than 1.56 million people in Illinois live below minimal-income levels of $9,310 for one person or $15,670 for a family of three. Yet with housing, gas, and heating costs rising rapidly, many agencies will serve those experiencing poverty even with incomes at 150 percent or 200 percent of the official poverty cutoff. With so many in need, social services — government, churches and secular nonprofits — are scrambling to keep up. On a recent Saturday morning in Springfield, some 120 families — mostly white, the rest black and Hispanic — lined up for two hours outside the St. Martin de Porres Center on South Grand Avenue to receive a monthly allotment of food, an armful of used clothes or both. Last year the center helped 14,400 families, or about 60,000 individuals, as a ministry of the Catholic Church. “This year we expect to serve 16,000 to 17,000 families and 65,000 to 70,000 individuals,” says director Gene Humphreville, an 84-year-old widower who has guided the center for more than a decade. “Every year has been 10 percent, 15 percent, or 20 percent above the year before.”
Among those lined up for help are grandparents caring for grandkids and laid-off workers who used to consider themselves middle-class. Some greet Humphreville by name, shake his hand, or thank him. “Bless you,” they say. The center doesn’t turn anyone away but does ask for identification to ensure that visitors don’t come more than once a month, even though the box of food each person is handed will last perhaps three or four days. One woman balancing a toddler on her hip tells the intake volunteer that she needs food and clothes for one adult and six kids. The volunteer nods silently and enters the information into the computer. Posted on a bulletin board in the clothing section is a faded notice for dressforsuccess.org, a nonprofit group that provides a business suit for an interview and another once the recipient is hired. No one here today is a likely candidate for this organization’s services: Many are already employed in low-paying service jobs or are unlikely to seek work that requires a suit. “The positive progress made in the second half of the ’90s, where the numbers of people poor were reduced and we had movement in the right direction, that has stalled,” says Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. “We have to renew our efforts. The best way to fight poverty is if you’re able-bodied and breathing, we want you in a job — but we also must create jobs in our own back yard that don’t go to a foreign country.”

Most who try to assist the poor agree that economic recovery has bypassed a state strapped with high unemployment and sluggish job growth. “What economists call the economic recovery of the last couple years did not impact Illinois as much as other places,” says Amy Rynell, director of the Mid-America Institute on Poverty within the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights. “We continue to lose businesses, and that’s what I hear a lot in the middle of the state: that such-and-such company left and there’s no new companies to replace them. So when people find another job it’s a downgrade, and it might mean more travel.” Yet living costs continue to increase, particularly such live-or-die expenses as health care and prescription medicine. The price of gasoline has nearly doubled in the past year, and experts predict that home-heating costs will skyrocket this winter. Those who must survive on fixed incomes, particularly the elderly, face a crunch of tough financial decisions. “I think people are choosing between paying utilities or buying food, or paying the rent or buying medicine,” says Pam Molitoris, director of Central Illinois Foodbank, which delivers food to nearly 200 agencies in 21 counties. “You’ve got a lot of families that, even working, cannot make ends meet.”
The agency gets its food from a network known as America’s Second Harvest, USDA commodities, and corporate donations of food overruns, test products, mislabeled packages, and unpopular products that didn’t sell, Molitoris says. The Foodbank delivers just under 4 million pounds of food annually to Springfield, Decatur, and a sprawling rural area spanning 22 percent of the state, or 12,000 square miles, in refrigerated trucks that are expensive to operate. But even that huge effort is not enough. “In Springfield, over 50 percent of kids are eligible in school systems for free or reduced lunch programs and in Decatur, it’s even higher — 60 percent,” she says. On a recent trip to Decatur, Molitoris saw a pantry run out of food on Monday when the next shipment wasn’t due until Friday. Although the agency’s food is supposed to supplement what families can buy on their own, she adds, “it is an indication when they’re closing early there’s a need issue there.”
Quinn has spearheaded several initiatives aimed at reducing poverty and unemployment. Next month he and a partnership of utility companies will unveil a program to “weatherize Illinois” — a two-pronged plan to create jobs and conserve energy in public buildings and private residences by weatherizing against heat loss and replacing lighting with energy-efficient bulbs to cut back on electricity use. In addition, because the poor pay as much as 20 percent of their income for fuel and utilities, he hopes that energy efficiency will save them money while reducing the state’s dependence on foreign oil. “Almost all the money we spend in Illinois on energy leaves our state and never comes back,” he says. “If we, as a society, say we don’t want to spend so much hard-earned money on buying energy from foreign countries, then we have to use American common sense and figure out how to become more energy-efficient. Conservation, Teddy Roosevelt said, is the patriotic thing to do.”
Largely through Quinn’s efforts, the state recently funded the Paul Simon Rural Transportation Service to bring public transportation to residents in 30 rural counties, including Sangamon, where bus service previously ran only within the Springfield city limits. He also favors tax reforms that would allow the working poor to keep more of what they earn, and he has spurred a contingent of volunteers to educate low-income working residents who may be eligible for the Earned Income Tax credit, which reduces the tax they owe and often results in cash-back refunds. One such outreach netted refunds averaging $1,300 per household, he says. Other groups partner with the state to strengthen communities and provide the economic development necessary to attract residents, jobs, and prosperity. From her position as chief executive officer of Rural Partners, Kay Gregg is leading efforts to bring broadband into rural areas so that those towns can appeal to urbanites looking to live a rural lifestyle and develop small businesses that create jobs. “The infrastructure has to be in place for rural areas first,” she says.
At the Illinois People’s Assembly in Springfield, Chris Miller organizes at the grassroots level to address what he calls the “big issues” confronting the poor: transportation, health care, child care, housing, education, and jobs. By working on behalf of new policies, Miller strives to bring poverty out of the shadows and urges low-income residents to participate in the political and community decisions that will affect their lives. “There’s people power and there’s money power,” he contends. “People in poverty are never going to have that power; they’re never going to have the voice that money can have in an election.”
Miller and a coalition of advocacy groups recently fought — and won — a battle against the state’s powerful payday-loan industry. Earlier this summer, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation that will regulate predatory lending and rein in sky-high interest rates charged by short-term-loan companies, which have mushroomed in Illinois from zero storefronts 10 years ago to nearly 1,000 today. The law takes effect in December. The recently unemployed are particularly vulnerable to such tactics, Miller says. They need to adjust their expectations and trim expenses to conform to a lower standard of living, but many will turn to short-term loans to cover the bills after the paychecks stop, thinking that another job is just around the corner. Instead, months may pass before they are able to retrain in a new field or develop the computer skills that many employers require. “For the first time, factory workers are facing poverty,” he says. “They go to payday-loan stores because they don’t know what to do. Someone living a middle-class existence suddenly finding themselves in poverty, they don’t know how to deal with that.”

Reaching those who are slipping financially is challenging. Few people openly discuss whether they can pay their bills, so many who drift in and out of poverty feel stigmatized and alone. Most, like Freeman, don’t want to draw attention to themselves, so they try to sound better off than they are. In fact, truly understanding and assessing a situation such as Freeman’s is complex and politically charged. Religious conservatives might applaud her decision to forgo abortion and give birth to her unplanned third and fourth children. And her willingness to adopt a niece and nephew from an overwhelmed sister — when the sister threatened to turn them over to child-protective services and a rocky future in foster care — deserves praise. Yet others would note that her decision to have so many children in the first place has hampered her ability to earn more and live better. And had she pursued nursing immediately after high school, when that goal was still attainable, she would likely not be living in poverty today. Freeman says that she applied for college but had to move before receiving an acceptance letter, so she doesn’t even know for sure whether she was admitted. Like others who are poor, she says that she has moved nearly every year for many reasons — to avoid rent increases she couldn’t afford, to leave a unit flooded by burst plumbing, to escape a violent neighborhood. After that, she doesn’t remember what went wrong. “Life got in the way,” she says. She focused on supporting herself through a series of fast-food jobs in Chicago. But Freeman has a lot going for her, too. She is a high-school graduate, avoided her mother’s fate of teen pregnancy, and is married — all crucial factors in achieving economic well-being, according to numerous studies and experienced policy advocates such as Rynell of the Heartland Alliance. (“Teens who have children are almost guaranteed poverty,” Rynell says.) Freeman has not only held her family together but also provided a stability that she lacked growing up. She is most proud of an accomplishment taken for granted by the well-to-do: On Nov. 16, she and her family will have lived for four years under the same roof. And whereas virtually everyone she knows “just gets by” or worse, Freeman has a savings account and no outstanding loans or credit cards. In her view, accumulating more cash as a safety net was not a prerequisite to starting a family. Yet Freeman is far from alone. The vast majority of working adults who live on the financial edge are vulnerable to being blindsided by an emergency such as a natural disaster or health-care crisis. A recent study revealed that 15 percent of Illinois households have zero net worth, putting them at risk, according to Heartland Alliance. “There are a few different ways to get out of poverty, and one of them is to build assets,” Rynell says. “That’s how the GI Bill helped so many veterans make a good life for themselves and their families. Without having things like a house, higher education, a savings account, it’s hard to weather the crises that come and go in your life. We all experience similar crises, but what you have in your back pocket to deal with those crises is important.”
Quinn says that it’s critical that state government commit to leaving no resident behind. “We don’t want anyone in Illinois, the land of Lincoln, to be invisible if they have need,” he says. “We have to look at policies in government and private life to make sure our neighbor is not left on the side of the road.”
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