Census Data Show Little Progress against Poverty in Illinois

According to a new report released today by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and the Coalition on Human Needs based on data released in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) on September 17th, progress in fighting poverty in Illinois remained stalled in 2014. 

The data show no significant decrease in poverty from 2013 to 2014.  1.8 million Illinoisans, or 1 in 7 of us, lived below the poverty line in 2014. The change in Illinois’s poverty rate from 14.7% in 2013 to 14.4% in 2014 is not statistically significant. The proportion of people living in deep poverty  (below 50% of the poverty line) budged a little, from 6.8% in 2013 to 6.6% in 2014. Conditions likewise failed to improve for children, with a child poverty rate of 20.2% in 2014 consistent with the 2013 rate of 20.7%.  While many tout the supposed progress we have made since the Great Recession ended, it is clear that the lives of our most vulnerable residents in Illinois have yet to improve.

Racial inequalities in Illinois are glaringly apparent.  Although 10.8% of non-Hispanic whites lived in poverty in 2014, more than 30% of all blacks and almost 20% of all Latinos lived below the poverty line. Disparities are even starker among children:  40.8% of black and 27.1% of Latino children lived in poverty during 2014, compared to only 11% of non-Hispanic white children

The ACS did show marginal improvement in the national poverty rate, which fell from 15.8% in 2013 to 15.5% in 2014. Assuming an annual  poverty reduction rate of 0.3% per year--an optimistic assumption--it would take more than 25 years to cut the overall poverty rate in half, and more than 35 years to reduce child poverty to that same level.  Clearly, we face a long and arduous journey in eradicating poverty in Illinois and around the U.S.

Despite this, we do have proven poverty fighting measures that improve the lives of those in poverty.  As I explained in a recent blog about the national poverty numbers, non-cash benefits and tax credits are highly effective tools in lifting people above the poverty threshold.  In Illinois, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) lifted 478,000 Illinoisans, including 252,000 children, out of poverty from 2011 to 2013. The EITC alone injected about $2.5 billion into Illinois’s economy in 2012. Given the proven efficacy of these poverty-fighting measures, Congress should, in the midst of a stalled war on poverty, be expanding and strengthening programs like the EITC and CTC.

Instead, Congress is debating spending bills to mend our budget deficit that, if passed, would weaken many of these programs. Illinoisans lifted out of poverty by these programs now stand on the precipice of falling back into poverty, while those already living in poverty face deeper deprivation.  For example, the House spending bill would fail to renew 28,000 existing rental vouchers in addition to 67,000 vouchers already lost to the 2013 sequestration cuts of 2013, depriving 1,360 more Illinois families of housing assistance. In a state where more than 1 in 5 low-income renters already spend more than 50% of their income on rent, further regression is not acceptable.

Some in Congress have suggested decreasing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid in lieu of the scheduled sequestration cuts. This too is a wrongheaded approach to solving our country’s financial woes—the benefits of SNAP are too many, and the damages of reducing its funding are too apparent, to accept such cuts.  For example, SNAP lifted 205,000 Illinoisans, including 94,000 children, above the poverty line from 2009 to 2012. However, cuts at the end of 2013 reduced the average monthly SNAP benefit per person per meal from $1.57 to $1.46 in Illinois. These reductions had a major impact—research shows that the 2013 SNAP cuts increased the likelihood of household and child food insecurity by 17% among households with children receiving SNAP

While progress in fighting poverty is stalled in Illinois and improving only marginally nationwide, we still have much to lose. Efforts to reduce the budget deficit should not be put on the backs of people living in poverty, and we cannot allow Congress to pass these damaging cuts unnoticed.  Instead, we should urge Congress to offset our deficits through closing tax loopholes or ending corporate tax breaks while investing in proven anti- poverty policy measures that improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in Illinois and across the nation.

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