Spotlight Exclusives

Ending the Cycle of Poverty and Violence in Illinois

Katie Buitrago, Heartland Alliance Katie Buitrago, Heartland Alliance, posted on

Many recent instances of lethal violence in Chicago can be found in the same communities that are also struggling with staggering rates of poverty. The neighborhoods of Austin, Englewood, New City, West Englewood, and Greater Grand Crossing all have higher rates of poverty than that of Chicago or Illinois, with poverty rates ranging from 30 to 46 percent. These same five neighborhoods also accounted for nearly half of the increase in murders between 2015 and 2016.

This is no coincidence.

Heartland Alliance’s latest report on poverty in Illinois shows that violence and poverty are deeply interconnected. The same forces that foster poverty also put people at risk of violence: lack of good-paying jobs, limited educational opportunities, and lack of access to key services. Illinois, and our nation as a whole, must address the long-standing drivers of violence and poverty and acknowledge the role of trauma in their continuation.

While policymakers have been struggling to find a solution to the recent surge of lethal violence in Chicago, trauma is a word not often found in discussions about solutions. Overlooking trauma is overlooking a crucial part of the solution to both violence and poverty.

Over one-third of Illinois residents and nearly half of Chicagoans live in poverty or are classified as low-income. The number of poor Chicagoans living in neighborhoods with poverty rates of at least 40 percent, which are more likely to have conditions that foster violence, has grown by 384 percent since 2000. The staggering poverty rates in Illinois means that large numbers of vulnerable people are at higher risk of violence.

Experiencing or witnessing a violent event can traumatize a person and negatively impact the rest of their life if that trauma goes unaddressed. Trauma can have enormous impacts on life prospects, social interactions, educational achievement, physical and mental health, family dynamics, and more. We must directly address trauma if we hope to heal the violence that has been devastating our communities.

Even though Chicago’s violence crisis has been in the national news and captured the attention of President Trump, we do not want to perpetuate the false narrative that violence, poverty, and therefore trauma, are only found within city limits. Residents in rural Illinois and in the suburbs are not immune to this cycle of risk either.

Nearly half of the Chicago region’s poor live in the suburbs. This number has grown massively over the past several decades and the suburbanization of poverty is happening nationwide. The largest income disparity in violent victimization rates is in rural areas—the rural poor experience violent crime at a rate 192 percent higher than high-income people in rural areas. We must open our eyes to the reality that violence, poverty, and trauma, are not just found in one particular area; they are entrenched in our entire state.

A fundamental part of addressing this poverty and violence are resources for programs that help families meet their needs, heal from trauma, and connect with opportunity. However, Illinois has been in the midst of a nearly two-year-long budget impasse that has decimated services for people living in poverty.

Education, community mental health services, anti-violence programming, youth and adult employment programs, housing subsidies, and income supports all play a role in helping to address the long-term drivers of violence. And these services have been eroding and in some cases shutting down completely due to state lawmakers’ inability to put politics aside and pass a budget.

These programs all play an important role in mitigating the worst effects of poverty and addressing long-standing economic inequity. As the state stumbles forward, operating by court order and inadequate emergency appropriations, it is leaving Illinois’ most vulnerable behind. Illinois lawmakers must summon the political courage necessary to take hard tax votes and raise the revenue needed to address our state’s needs.

While the recent lack of funding plays a significant role in the crisis, we must not forget about the legacy of inequity in our state and nationwide. This legacy of denying human rights and opportunities to people of color has played a major role in cultivating the poverty that many face today. Illinois has seen disinvestment in communities of color, redlining, an inequitable criminal justice system, discriminatory policies, an unequal educational system, and more. This legacy has left many communities, especially communities of color, facing lasting barriers to opportunity and higher risks of experiencing violence.

The issues we face are complex. But there is hope and there are solutions to ending this cycle of risk.

Some of the solutions called for in our report include vast reforms to the criminal justice system, passing a budget that includes adequate revenue for critical services, addressing the affordable housing crisis, investing in education, and incorporating a trauma-informed approach to care within our public services, schools, criminal justice settings, and health and human services, so that we make healing, not punishments, a priority.

We have a moral obligation to prevent violence before it starts, intervene where it’s happening, and disrupt the cycles that perpetuate it. If Illinois’ policymakers can find the courage to make a concerted effort to address this cycle of risk, we believe that Illinois can be a safe place for everyone.

Katie Buitrago is director of research at Heartland Alliance.

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