Friday, September 30, 2011

State losing ground on poverty goals

By Jamey Dunn

A government commission seeking to cut extreme poverty in half in the state by 2015 says Illinois is moving in the opposite direction of that goal.

A report released by the Commission on the Elimination of Poverty found that more than 800,000 people are living in extreme poverty in the state. That number increased by more than 200,000 since the General Assembly created the commission in 2008. Extreme poverty is defined as an income that is less than half of the federal poverty level. For a family of four that would mean $11,175 a year. Making up 10 percent of those who are extremely poor, children are the most represented age group. More than12 percent of people living below the extreme poverty line have a disability that hinders their ability to work.

The recession that has pushed more residents into poverty and made things harder for those already below the poverty line has also strangled state revenues. With fewer tax dollars rolling in and much of the money from the recent tax increase going toward the state’s deficit, lawmakers made cuts to balance the budget. “The implications of substantial service cuts for those experiencing extreme poverty — many of whom rely on state-funded services in their communities to meet their basic needs — will be nothing short of devastating,” the report said. The commission’s report focused on several of the group’s recommendations from its 2010 plan. All but two of the legislative recommendations the group made last year and revisited in the report were defined as either “losing ground” or at a standstill.

Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat and sponsor of a measure that would bar the state from asking most job applicants about nonviolent criminal records, said he has hope for his legislation. House Bill 1210 failed to emerge from committee during the spring legislative session. He said that The Illinois Department of Central Management Systems, which manages the state's workforce, is concerned about implementation costs, such as printing new applications. But Ford said he is working with CMS and hopes to revisit the issue during the fall veto session, scheduled for the end of October.

Ford said the plan would allow those who have paid their debt to society a chance to get back on their feet through work. “In fact, it would save the state a lot of money. The fact that we have so much recidivism — one of the reasons is that people can’t go back to work.” Ford said that jobs with specific legal requirements barring those with criminal records would be exempt from the bill. “The bill is pretty simple. The bill is safe. It eliminates employers or jobs in the state that the law automatically disqualifies. … You can’t apply for a job with law enforcement if you have a [criminal] background. The law disqualifies you. You can’t apply for a job dealing with money. The law disqualifies you.” Ford said if the state leads by example, private businesses might follow suit and stop asking about nonviolent criminal offenses. He added that the state could also offer incentives to employers that hire people with records. “It’s about time that taxpayers stopped footing the bill for individuals that are not able to go to work and pay taxes. We have to foot the bill by continuing to pay for their health care, pay for their incarceration or pay for them through social services.”

Some business leaders say components of the commission’s recommendations would potentially put more people out of work. David Vite, president of the Retail Merchants Association, said proposals such as raising the state minimum wage and requiring employers to give their work force paid sick leave would increase costs to business and deter hiring. He said in some cases, it might lead to layoffs, and some businesses would not be able to remain afloat under such demands. “It certainly would have reduced employment in the state and probably put some people out of business.”

Vite had a lukewarm reaction to one of the recommendations that did become law, House Bill 2927, and said it could help to spur hiring. The new law will offer subsidies to be spent on wages to employers who hire new workers. The companies and nonprofits that take the subsidies must agree to keep new workers even after the state stops helping to pay their wages. The subsidies are to be distributed throughout the state based on unemployment rates. “It’s not exactly what we would like, but anytime you give an opportunity to reduce the cost of labor in the state, it can give a positive effect,” Vite said.

Maywood Democratic Rep. Karen Yarbrough, who sponsored the legislation that created the commission, said the report was upsetting but not a total surprise. “It’s very distressing. I didn’t expect it to be so dire. But it is, and I understand why it is. Because working in our district offices, I mean, you see it up front and personal. This summer has been extremely distressing. People who have lost their homes, lost their jobs and probably the most important thing is that in some cases — lost hope.”

She acknowledged it is difficult to find support for proposals that would increase costs to the state or to businesses in the midst of a budget crisis and after the passage of an income tax increase. “We have an obligation. However we get it done, we have an obligation to the least of them. … We have a moral obligation to figure this out,” she said. “I understand the reality. It’s tough. But it’s our job. We signed up for it as legislators.”

The report said that the goal of eliminating poverty did not come out on top when weighed by legislators with other concerns and limited money to spend. Along with passing few of the group’s recommendations, lawmakers also shifted money away from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, slashed programs for the homeless and transitional housing and eliminated two income assistance programs. “Faced with difficult decisions about state budget cuts and policy priorities, policymakers failed to prioritize funding for programs and services and substantive bills that would meet the needs of the most vulnerable. Only by refocusing and reprioritizing in the coming year will our state be able to decrease the number of individuals and families living in extreme poverty.”

Kimberly Drew — a policy associate for the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, which provides assistance to the commission — said that group considered the state’s budget shortfall when making its recommendations. “There was much discussion around the current state of the Illinois budget and really what could gain traction around the budget climate.” She said administrative changes, such as Ford’s proposal and streamlining the application process for assistance programs so those who are eligible for multiply programs could cut down on the number of applications they submit, are low cost solutions. However, she said the commission will also lobby lawmakers to restore funding to the eliminated income assistance programs and programs for the homeless, among other cuts. “We want to raise up some of the cuts that have had particularly devastating impacts on people who are in extreme poverty. … The cuts to housing programs have been particularly hard felt.”

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