Change is slow for those in extreme poverty

Change is slow for those in extreme poverty

CHAMPAIGN — Could you live on $5,800 a year?

Hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois squeeze by on that much or less, and a member of a statewide organization chipping away at extreme poverty said changes for the better are taking time.

"I wish I could say we've made a dramatic difference, but it's been very slow," said Jim Hires, executive director of the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and a member of the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty.

Extreme poverty, the focus of this group formed in 2008, is considered to be an income below half of the federal poverty line. The federal poverty limit this year is $11,670 for a single person and $23,850 for a family of four.

A family of four living in extreme poverty would be living on just under $12,000 a year or less.

At the commission's last count in 2012, based on U.S. Census data, there were more than 760,000 people in Illinois living in extreme poverty.

The commission, which has advocated for such changes as a boost in minimum wage, met in Champaign Thursday to take a look at how its efforts in the year ahead can have the most impact.

Hires said East Central Illinois needs jobs.

Demand on the foodbank has grown as the area has continued to deal with under-employment and too many people have been unable to recover lost income from the recession, he said.

"The jobs they can find don't pay as well, and it takes two incomes," Hires added. "It's the working poor that we now deal with."

Fellow commission member Al Riddley of Springfield told of being in East St. Louis Wednesday, and "on one corner I counted 41 men standing around," he said.

Within extreme poverty is a lot of single parenting and doubling and tripling up among generations living in the same homes, and a culture that perpetuates that, he said.

The commission has made some strides, advocating for jobs and the state's Medicaid expansion, and has succeeded in shining more attention on the issues, Riddley said. But poverty solutions are also competing for attention with many other state budget issues.

He'd like to see a specific strategy adopted by the Legislature as a whole.

Meanwhile, he compares progress on poverty issues to "dipping into the ocean with a teaspoon."

Michael Holmes, executive director of the Illinois African-American Family Commission, said extreme poverty and homelessness is greatly impacting the state's black communities.

A September 2013 report by the poverty commission showed extreme poverty disproportionately affects minorities, women, children and people with disabilities. Holmes said solutions for poverty can be integrated with other state budget issues if the right mechanics are put into place. For example, he said, one youth program could save money down the road on mental health and drug treatment services.