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Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

A report on extreme poverty in Illinois will be released at an International Human Rights Day event on December 11, inaugurating a campaign to address poverty as a human rights issue.

Some 700,000 Illinois residents live in extreme poverty, defined as an income level of 50 percent of the federal poverty level, said Doug Schenkelberg of the Heartland Alliance, co-author of the report. That’s $10,000 a year for a family of four.

Extreme poverty is concentrated in areas of Chicago as well as rural counties on the state’s southern border, he said.

Many cases involve people with disabilities or other barriers to employment, but a quarter of working-age adults in extreme poverty are regularly employed – many at minimum wage jobs, Schenkelberg said.

The report by Heartland’s Mid-America Institute on Poverty “paints a picture of what it means to live in extreme poverty” and explores poverty as an issue of human rights, he said.

The United States often proclaims its adherence to human rights “but we haven’t always done a good job of upholding human rights,” especially the economic and social rights contained in numerous international human rights agreements, he said.

“We tend to think of poverty as an issue of charity,” he said. “We need to see the elimination of poverty as a basic obligation of the state” in order to move toward eradication of poverty.

With 342,000 more state residents living in poverty than six years ago, Illinois now tops Midwest states in overall poverty rates as well as child poverty and extreme poverty, according to a recent Heartland report.

“Extreme Poverty and Human Rights” will be released on International Human Rights Day, Monday, December 11, with a panel discussion at 9 a.m. at the John Marshall Law School, 315 S. Plymouth Court. Panelists include Jennifer Kottler of Protestants for the Common Good; W. Robert Schulz of Amnesty International; and Nancy Tegtmeier of the Illinois Coalition for Community Service, which works in many rural areas with high poverty levels.

New Welfare Rules Called Counterproductive

The proposed tightening of federal rules on workforce participation by TANF recipients could undercut successful local programs that move welfare recipients into well-paying jobs, advocates say.

Local groups including the Heartland Alliance, the Chicago Jobs Council, and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law are submitting comments this week on new regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after TANF was reauthorized in February.

With city and state support, the Chicago area has emerged as a leader in transitional jobs programs which, in contrast to “work-first” approaches, provide a continuum of services to address multiple personal employment barriers and use real work experience to transition to permanent jobs, with high success rates, said Melissa Young, coordinator of the National Transitional Jobs Network at the Heartland Alliance. The new rules would limit access to supportive services and cut back on the number of training opportunities, she said.

New limits on vocational education would restrict programs at the Community Assistance Program, which customizes training for TANF clients based on job requirements provided by prospective employers, said Sheryl Holman. And increased paperwork and monitoring requirements would reduce the time her staff can work with clients, she said. CAP trains TANF clients and others at five South Side locations.

The new regulations would also make it harder for employment services working under the federal Workforce Investment Act to serve TANF clients, said Rose Karasti of the Chicago Jobs Council.

The HHS proposal ignores the lessons of the first ten years of TANF – that entry-level employment is not a bridge out of poverty, but that welfare recipients can succeed with the proper support, said John Bouman of the Shriver Center. “The focus needs to be on reducing poverty,” he said.

Illinois Rated on Asset Inequality

How does Illinois rate against other states in terms of wealth inequality? A new assets and opportunities scorecard ranks states on policies and performance in promoting asset building and protection. Three years ago a previous scorecard gave Illinois an “A” for policies and a “C” for performance.

Dory Rand of the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law is participating in a national multimedia press conference on May 17, and the Shriver Center and the Illinois Asset Building Group will hold press briefings on the report in Springfield on May 20 and Chicago on May 23 (11 a.m. at the Federal Reserve Bank, 230 S. LaSalle).

The Shriver Center piloted a Financial Links for Low-Income People program for IDHS in 2001-2003; a recent evaluation of the pilot shows “the state should support these kinds of programs, because they work,” Rand said. The new study is at

Welfare Reform: Many Families Left Behind

Welfare reform here has a “mixed legacy,” according to the Illinois Families Study, a long-term study of 1,000 Illinois families who were TANF recipients in 1998. IFS recently released its fourth annual report.

Nearly half the families in the study (46 percent) have successfully left TANF for work, although almost all of them continue to live in poverty. But an almost equal number (43 percent) has access to neither welfare nor work, instead subsisting in conditions of “hardship and vulnerability,” according to the report.

“We don’t know how they’re getting by,” said Phyllis Russell of Work, Welfare and Families, a state advocacy group, commenting on the report. WWF is working to bring more attention to the problems of the “deeply poor,” she said.

Some may be receiving SSI or child support but “the majority is just winging it” — and many of them should probably still be receiving TANF, said Wendy Pollack of the Sargent Shriver National Center of Poverty Law.

Welfare reform created pressure to reduce TANF caseloads, and many clients aren’t told about all their options, Pollack said. “We’re losing a chance to invest in people, to address their barriers to work and build their capacity to maintain employment,” she said.

Working families in the study have benefited from employment supports like childcare subsidies, health insurance and food stamps, but almost all of them continue to live in poverty. Fully 89 percent of those working and receiving no TANF earned below the federal poverty level, with other public benefits included in their income. Their average annual income was below $15,000.

“What is our obligation to people who we’ve pushed into $7-an-hour jobs?” asked Russell. “We need a discussion about our commitment as a society to provide supports that will help people in low-wage jobs move out of poverty.”

“The major challenge of the next phase of reform in Illinois will be helping unemployed families gain and maintain jobs while continuing to support families who are newly self-sufficient,” said Dan Lewis, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University and principal investigator for the Illinois Family Study. He noted that work supports are necessary “to make it worthwhile to work in a low-wage environment.”

Springfield: Legislative Update

With the state legislature turning to the budget, nonprofit advocates are keeping up pressure for action on bills which have already passed one house of the General Assembly. Here’s a partial rundown:

Budget referendum. SB 151 calls for a statewide referendum asking whether voters would support an income tax increase up to 1 percent for up to two years “to avoid drastic cuts in state support for public education and essential health care services”; passed the Senate. For more: Jennifer Holuj, Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, 312/332-1348.

Minimum wage. SB 600 raises state’s minimum wage to $6.50 an hour; passed Senate. For more: Madeline Talbott, ACORN, 312/939-7488.

Equal pay. SB 2 bans gender-based wage discrimination; passed Senate. Toni Henie, Women Employed, 312/782-3902.

Universal health care. HB 2268, Health Care Justice Act, establishes planning process to implement a health care plan with access for full range of preventive, acute, and long-range service; passed House. Jim Duffett, Campaign for Better Health Care, 312/939-9449.

Earned Income Tax Credit. SB 4 and HB 2186 extend the EITC, and both have passed one house; the House bill makes the tax credit refundable starting in 2005. John Bouman, National Center for Poverty Law, 312/368-2671.

Child-care assistance. HB 294 updates eligibility for child-care assistance to 50 percent of median income, pushing back the “child-care cliff” facing thousands of welfare-to-work families; passed the House. Contact Nora Moreno Cargie, Day Care Action Council, 312/742-7529.

Videotaping interrogations. SB 15 requires videotaping interrogations in murder investigations, with funding through the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority; passed Senate. Darrin Bowden, First Defense Legal Aid, 773/826-6550.

Welfare reform. HB 1360 increases TANF grant amount by 5 percent and provides annual adjustments; HB 3021 phases out the “family cap” adopted in 1995 in order to provide support for 10-20,000 children currently cut off; both passed the House. John Bouman, National Center for Poverty Law, 312/368-2671.

Early Education. SB 565 would establish an Illinois Early Learning Council to coordinate programs in different departments. HB 2235 increases funding for programs for kids aged 0-to-3 to reach thousands of additional at-risk children. Dan Baron, Ounce of Prevention, 312/922-3863.

Children’s Mental Health Act. HB 2900 expands and coordinates the existing system; currently only about 20 percent of children who need mental health services receive them. Dan Baron, Ounce of Prevention, 312/922-3863.

Immigrant education. HB 60 allows Illinois high-school grads to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities regardless of immigration status; passed house. Marissa May Graciosa, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 312/332-7360.

Youth transitional housing. HB 2390 eases legal restrictions to facilitate shelter and services for homeless minors; passed House. Les Brown, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 312/435-4548.

Subsidized housing. HB 2246 gives property tax rebates to owners who rent to housing subsidy voucher holders in low-poverty areas; HB 2345 establishes a state interagency task force to develop an annual housing plan; both passed the House. SB 591 requires owners of assisted housing to give 12 months advance notice of their intent to sell or end subsidies. For more: Bob Palmer, Statewide Housing Action Council, 312/939-6074.

Energy. HB 2200 requires utilities to generate 5 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2010 and 15 percent by 2020; passed House. SB 609 establishes a statewide energy efficiency building codes for all new residential and commercial construction; passed Senate. For more: Mike Truppa, Environmental Law and Policy Center, 312/673-6500,

Campaign reform. SB 1415 provides public financing option for judicial candidates and limits private financing. Cindi Canary, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, 312/335-1767.

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