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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 01:29 pm

State regresses in poverty goals

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For the lowest income group in Illinois, the Great Recession might as well have been another Great Depression. Though 7.3 percent of higher income Illinois workers were unemployed earlier this year, the unemployment rate of lower income workers exceeded 25 percent, according to Illinois’ Commission on the Elimination of Poverty.

Those are disturbing statistics, says Al Riddley, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Community Services, that, coupled with recent state and federal funding cuts to social services, “calls for a massive redirection.”

In 2008, Illinois created the Commission on the Elimination of Poverty, which set its sights on halving Illinois’ extreme poverty rate by 2015. With about 607,200 Illinois residents in extreme poverty in 2008, success would mean reducing that number to about 303,600 by 2015. The latest count, however, lists 823,406 Illinois residents as experiencing extreme poverty, which is defined as one person living off of about $5,415 per year, or a family of four living on about $11,025 per year.

The 26 percent increase in extreme poverty from 2008 to 2010 means Illinois is moving in the wrong direction. “The needs continue to rise as the dollars for human services deplete,” says Riddley, who is also a member of the poverty commission. “This year, human services took cuts in almost every area – mental health, homeless, transitional jobs.”

As part of its work, the commission held a public hearing in Springfield earlier this month, where about 50 advocates and social service clients gathered to express their concerns and share their successes.

Michelle McDonnell, who’s been homeless for the past five years, traveled from the Alton area to explain that she found little help for her demographic – formerly middle class with grown children in college, and no history of physical abuse or drug abuse. Diagnosed with manic depressive disorder and panic disorder, McDonnell spent three years trying to get Social Security disability income. Seeking reforms, she told commissioners that she personally knows five people who are abusing the system, wasting taxpayer dollars.

Tabitha Bernhardt, a Chatham resident, explained that she’d never experienced poverty, but said she worries her local food pantry is low on supplies. “Raise our taxes,” Bernhardt says. “It’s not a popular idea, but for some of us it’s a $10 or $15 hit – that’s a couple trips to Starbucks.”

Besides funding, advocates supported changes to Illinois law, several of which are laid out in the commission’s annual progress report, to be released this month. Those changes include better income supports, better access to work, better child care assistance, changes to earned income tax credits and improved working conditions, such as rights to sick days and annual increases in the minimum wage.

The state legislature has taken on some of the commission’s recommendations, including the establishment of a statewide transitional jobs program. Gov. Pat Quinn hasn’t approved the legislation yet, but if he signs it the state will provide 50 to 75 percent of wages for up to 40,000 people. Legislators also approved a measure requiring state agencies to evaluate the feasibility of switching to a system where the disabled who receive Supplemental Security Income are automatically eligible for Medicaid.

In other areas, however, the state hasn’t moved forward at all. Despite a recommendation to invest more in the SOAR Initiative (Supplemental Security Income/Social Security Disability Insurance Outreach, Access and Recovery), Illinois is not providing any training funds this fiscal year. Another recommendation called for increasing eligibility for the welfare program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which experienced a $1.9 million state budget cut and a $44 million federal budget cut, according to the commission’s draft 2011 progress report.

Acknowledging Illinois’ fiscal challenges, Dr. Damon Arnold, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, says the legislature needs to invest more money staving off problems that if allowed to grow only cost the state more in the end. He says people need to realize that poverty is “not someone else’s problem. It’s all of our problem.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com

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