Spotlight Exclusives

Illinois Targets Extreme Poverty, by Governor Rod R. Blagojevich

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The time has come to draw a line in the sand on extreme poverty. We have the resources and the will. What we no longer have is any excuse for inaction. On August 15, I signed into law House Bill 4369, which establishes the Commission on the Elimination of Poverty in the state of Illinois. The stated goal of the new body is to create a plan to cut extreme poverty in Illinois in half by the year 2015. By combining achievable goals with a comprehensive approach to poverty, I believe this Commission can move Illinois even further into the forefront in the national movement against poverty, and establish Illinois as the model state for others to emulate.

The Commission will focus on those who live in extreme poverty, defined as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, or an income of merely $11,000 per year for a family of four. According to the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, 700,000 Illinoisans live in extreme poverty, 150,000 of whom are aged 12-24. Confronting extreme poverty demands more than making up for an unacceptable shortfall in the means required to achieve a reasonable standard of living. It also means we need to stand with those children and young adults whose fragile futures we have the power to shape. To provide opportunities for these families to work themselves out of poverty is both to help provide them what they need stay alive today as well as to provide them with the tools and opportunities to thrive tomorrow.

Every person has a right to a safe place to live, adequate healthcare, food, and decent educational and employment opportunities. Because a quality life has so many dimensions, we have structured our new Commission to focus on eight key areas:

  • Affordable housing
  • Food and nutrition
  • Affordable and quality health care
  • Equal access to quality education
  • Dependable and affordable transportation
  • Quality and affordable child care
  • Opportunities to engage in sustainable work that pays a living wage
  • Availability of adequate income supports

We already know that you can۪t just give people a hand-out and expect them to succeed. These eight areas acknowledge that we need to cover people۪s basic needs and, at the same time, that we can never make serious inroads into poverty until we open up to everyone the tried and tested pathways to success.

A deeper look at rising poverty levels in Illinois shows why we need to take a broader approach: in the last 10 years, low-income students have risen from 36.3 percent to 40.9 percent of the total enrollment and this year alone has witnessed a 4 percent increase in the number of households that receive Food Stamps.

These are problems we can conquer, but only if take into account and address the many factors of poverty. One reason we are creating this Commission is to ensure that the Illinois has a long-term plan.

The political will exists to do something about poverty and so it is equally important to develop an approach that can garner support from both sides of the aisle. When everyone can agree that we must act to reduce poverty, there is no time to let politics overwhelm initiative. This bill, which passed unanimously in both the Illinois House and Senate, mandates that the Commission represent all points of view. I will appoint five members, the Lieutenant Governor will appoint one, and then the House Majority and Minority Leaders and the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders will appoint five each for a total of 26. This gives us confidence that when the Commission does develop a plan, it will be one that all of Illinois can get behind.

We have allowed extreme poverty to persist for far too long. I am proud to say that the creation of this Commission is an important first step in remedying that inaction. We have now made a firm commitment to identifying and implementing policies that will greatly reduce the number of Illinoisans living in poverty. I hope that we can inspire other states and communities to follow suit, and pledge to dramatically reduce poverty in the coming years. These goals are not always easy, but they are within reach. It will require hard work and determination to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. Yet it is a deadline that all Illinoisans can now await with optimism and hope.

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