The number of impoverished people in the state of Illinois has risen to a 20-year high of 1.8 million. In 2009, the poverty rate was 13.2%, but last year it jumped up to 14.2%. The continuing lack of economic growth particularly limits those at the lower end of the employment market from finding work. This contributes to the increased number of long-termed unemployed – those on unemployment for more than 27 weeks.
Unemployment insurance is responsible for keeping up to 3.2 million people from sinking into poverty, according to the Census Bureau. Lack of insurance continues to be severely problematic for the unemployed and those under the poverty line. 1.91 million Illinoisans are currently without any type of health coverage.
Predictable effects of the increase in poverty and long-term unemployment have been visible for some time. Food pantries are facing a rush of new consumers not previously reliant on such assistance. Some pantries report that they are swamped with food requests, with as many as a third from persons who had not previously visited a food pantry.
Poverty levels are set by the census bureau at $11,139 for a single person, or $22,314 for a family of four. These are very low levels, and do not tell the whole story. Many people are just barely getting by on low level jobs and rely on assistance that is now on the chopping block.
Illinois has cut 87% of a homeless-prevention program that last year received a modest $11 million to help 14,000 families to stay in their current housing. Even at the program’s highest funding point, applicants for assistance were turned away 34,000 times because lack of funds. Keeping people in their homes makes financial sense when compared to the costs of disruption to families, inability of the homeless to find employment, disruption to schooling of homeless children and many other consequences that end up costing the state more in the long-term.
Funding cuts are already impacting many shelters and programs devoted to preventing homelessness or assisting the homeless to get back on their feet. Shelters are leaning on churches and voluntary giving at a time when financial hardship is causing such sources to also dry up.
Hoping to save money for the state by cutting funding that assists the homeless may be a classic case of being “penny wise and pound foolish.” With homelessness expected to continue to increase, the state will see increases in “survival crimes,” such as prostitution, theft and forgery. Shelters will see continuing increases in demand for their services at a time of decreasing resources. Hospitalizations and ER visits will go up as individuals and families suffer exposure, assaults and other crimes that they would otherwise not experience if still in their homes. Most homeless do not pay taxes of any sort, so payroll, property or sales tax revenue will decrease, further exacerbating the state and local community income crisis. Reliance on public benefits will increase rather than decline or stay the same.
It has become popular in our culture to speak of “personal responsibility” when discussing poverty. This is easier for those not currently seeking employment and are therefore uninformed about just how difficult it currently is to get a job in order to be “responsible.” Children continue to be a significant portion of the homeless: 39% in 2009. Even those heartless enough to argue that the adult homeless are just “lazy” or getting what they somehow deserve will find it more difficult to argue that there is any justification for allowing children to be homeless. Perhaps we need a new Charles Dickens to dramatize and publicize the plight of this growing sector of neglect. In the state of Illinois, something is surely needed.
Mike Davis is a local community organizer for groups such as the Coffee Party and Moveon.org and works with Veterans for Peace on a regular basis.