Over 48.5 million people in the United States are living in poverty, 1.9 million of them in Illinois. The scale and conditions of poverty make it one of the most pressing social issues facing our state and nation. Poverty will touch the majority of Americans at some point during adulthood. On average, 60% of 20 year olds in America will experience poverty at some point during their adult years, and about half of adults will experience poverty by the time they are age 65.
We know that we can’t end poverty without fully understanding the nature, scale, and scope of the issue. This year’s Report on Illinois Poverty brings us back to these basics. It explores who is poor in Illinois, why poverty exists in the first place, what hardships being poor induces, and how we can end poverty. It also gives voice to our neighbors experiencing poverty as they talk about their challenges living in, getting out, and staying out of poverty.
At its core, poverty exists because of employment-related reasons. But characterizing it in this way is an oversimplification that fails to account for the why: why people aren’t working, why they aren’t working enough, and why they aren’t making enough money. There are large economic forces at play, like high unemployment, declining wage levels, and growing inequality, that help explain these employment-related causes of poverty and point to how structural inequities translate to racial and gender disparities in economic well-being. But even this expanded view of the economic forces behind employment realities is too limiting for understanding the complex nature of poverty. Factors related to education, housing, health, and assets also contribute to a person’s chances of being able to succeed through work—and not experience poverty. Furthermore, as much as these factors contribute to poverty’s existence, they are also symptoms of poverty, existing in a symbiotic relationship whereby hardship can induce poverty and poverty can reinforce hardship.
For some groups, such as minorities and women, their overrepresentation in poverty represents a legacy of unequal opportunities that have hindered economic advancement. For others, like children and youth, their poverty story is intertwined with their families’ and with a broken safety net that lets children remain impoverished. Yet others, like workers, come face-to-face with the shortcomings of our market economy or have unique, sometimes challenging disadvantages to deal with.
Just as there is no single pathway into poverty, there is no single pathway out—no magic bullet policy or program that will single-handedly eradicate poverty. There are, however, myriad solutions that target each issue area related to poverty—employment, education, housing, health and nutrition, and assets. The Illinois Poverty Report has identified the following policy changes to address these issues:
EMPLOYMENT – Increase Illinois’s minimum wage and index it to inflation to maintain a baseline investment in Illinois workers. Expand the categories of workers covered by the minimum wage to include workers receiving tips, domestic workers, and workers under the age of 18.
EDUCATION – Increase access to Illinois’s 529 college savings program, making it easier for more families to take advantage of this important college savings tool. Exempt 529 accounts from the asset limit test on TANF, create a safe default investment option, and implement a matched savings program.
HOUSING – Return homeless prevention and homeless service program funding to their historic levels as an effective way to help families maintain housing stability in the face of temporary hardship and prevent the personal and financial costs associated with homelessness.
HEALTH – Expand access to health care by fully implementing the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and state-based health insurance exchange and supporting Illinois’s transition to care coordination programs in order to improve health outcomes and maximize cost-effective strategies.
ASSETS – Expand retirement savings opportunities by creating an automatic retirement account program for Illinois workers that utilizes employer payroll systems and gives workers the option of depositing a portion of earned wages into approved retirement accounts.
Illinois’s 33% aren’t just a statistic. They are our neighbors, our friends, and our family members. It’s clear that we have our work cut out for us, but together, we can end poverty in Illinois.
To download the full PDF version of the Illinois Poverty Report Click Here
To view the Illinois Poverty Map Click Here
Source: The Social Impact Research Center, a Heartland Alliance Program: http://ilpovertyreport.org