The True Cost of Poverty

11/24/2010 03:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that hundreds of Illinois social service agencies are sending hardship letters to the State Comptroller's office describing doomsday scenarios if long overdue payments are not forthcoming. Currently operating without these funds, many agencies have exhausted reserves, reduced their work force to skeleton crews and will be forced to close their doors in the coming months.

Ironically, this article appeared the same day the U.S. Census Bureau delivered stark evidence that even more Illinoisans desperately need the very services these agencies provide. The Bureau reported that the poverty rate grew in Illinois for the third year in a row, from 12.3 percent in 2008 to 13.3 percent.

Here in Chicago, single mothers and their children have been particularly hard-hit. In the last two years, Chicago families living in poverty have risen from 40 to 45 percent, meaning nearly one in two single moms and their kids are living in poverty. Using the current federal poverty guidelines, a family of four earning an income of less than $21,954 is within the poverty range. However, using more current self-sufficiency and financial stability models, which measure additional expenses (i.e. medical, child care, transportation, etc.), families earning an income of more than $35,000 are still unable to pay for basic necessities. When these families turn to social service agencies for support, the resources are simply unavailable.

At YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, we have seen a very diverse population of women in need of our services. We help college students no longer able to afford school, women who were laid off after years of service and seniors being forced back into the workforce. Additionally, we see many women applying for "survival jobs," earning wages well below their experience level. A woman with a bachelor's degree might take a job that only requires a high school diploma, which makes it even harder for a woman with a high school diploma to find a job that will provide for her family.

The consequences of this growing poverty will be especially harsh for children and young adults and, given the slow economic recovery, could linger for years. In Chicago, one out of three children lives below the poverty line, and nationally, one in five -- an increase of 1.4 million in just one year. Statistics show these children are more likely to have poor health, to fall behind in school, and to become less productive workers when they grow up.

As our new legislative leaders prepare to take office, I hope they will consider that ignoring the needs of children and other vulnerable members of our society, as well as the organizations that serve them, will perpetuate these problems. Our community cannot afford to keep cutting social services and holding back state payments to social services agencies.