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The Modern Face of Poverty

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A few days ago, the Social IMPACT Research Center, a program of Heartland Alliance, released its yearly report on the state of poverty in Illinois, and it's proven what we've known for a long time -- our economy simply isn't working for all too many hard-working Americans anymore. On the surface, it seems our recent economic downturn has wiped out the progress made through the War on Poverty -- as it did in 1960, the poverty rate sits at about 15 percent today. That number doesn't tell the whole story, though. The face of poverty is changing quickly, and it's cause for alarm as women, workers and minority communities are increasingly falling behind. To echo President Obama's recent State of the Union address, it's time to give America a raise.

Fifty years ago, when then-President Johnson declared the War on Poverty, more often than not even lower-income jobs paid a living wage. In those days, if you were working, you could provide for your family. Today, however, workers don't necessarily enjoy that benefit. Case in point: 388,000 Illinoisans who are in poverty live in households where someone is working full-time. This is the new face of poverty -- workers who, despite playing by the rules and putting in long hours, can barely pay the rent.

Women too find themselves increasingly behind the eight ball, earning just 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. The ramifications of this discrepancy are not only unjust, they're a recipe for disaster, especially among low-wage women, who are already struggling to stay afloat amidst rising child care and transportation costs. This is the new face of poverty -- women struggling, often on their own, just to keep their children fed.

As in 1960, minority communities continue to be disproportionately affected. Today, more than 44 percent of African-American children and nearly 28 percent of Latino children in Illinois live in poverty. Rates of unemployment are a core issue contributing to this cycle -- in African-American communities alone nearly half of men between 16 and 24 in Illinois are unemployed and looking for work, but unable to find a job. What can we expect people to do when they're ready, willing and able to work, but the jobs simply aren't there and, to make matters worse, the public programs they need to keep their families fed and housed in the interim are disintegrating under the weight of budget cuts?

The programs envisioned through the War on Poverty create a robust social safety net, which can provide the support that gives people a chance to pursue a safe, stable, healthy future. Social Security and Medicare alone prove it to be true. Created and expanded through the War on Poverty, they have reduced elderly poverty dramatically over these 50 years from nearly 33 percent to less than 10 percent. That's real success that proves the value of public programs to those who are living on the edge of destitution.

Now the face of poverty has changed, but at Heartland Alliance, the leading anti-poverty organization in the Midwest, where I work, our 125 years of experience have shown us the importance of rebuilding what was once an integrated, invigorated safety net. By increasing the minimum wage, protecting state funding for benefit programs, and supporting job training programs, we can create an environment in which people thrive.

Today, let's reenvision the War on Poverty to meet 2014 realities and reinvigorate the successful, vital programs it created. The fate of hundreds of thousands of Illinois families rests on it.

To read more of the report or see sources for our data, please visit ilpovertyreport.org