12/09/2011 10:47 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2012

The Space Between

There's a quote that's been told to me many times -- if you want the rainbow, you've got to put up with a little rain. I love that idea -- that if you work hard and are determined, you'll reap the rewards. As beautiful as that thought is, though, I can't help but thinking that some of us don't get the opportunity to see that rainbow. In fact, I'm sure of it.

Just this week, Heartland Alliance's Social IMPACT research center released our 2011 Report on Illinois Poverty. It contains new data on the state of poverty in Illinois, and, unsurprisingly, the news is grim.

Nearly one in three Illinoisans is considered poor or low-income. That's almost four million of us who are surviving on less than twice the poverty line -- $34,748 for a family of three per year. More than 1.9 million people throughout Chicagoland have trouble purchasing enough food or don't know where their next meal is coming from. The situation was bad before the recession, it's gotten worse during the recession and -- even with the economy gaining -- those in poverty are still between a rock and a hard place.

The space between a rock and a hard place -- that's somewhere we're hearing a lot about these days. What's hard to see, however, is how truly heart-wrenching this place is.

Between a rock and a hard place is where you can work full time and still be in poverty (like 100,000 Illinoisans). It's where you can look for a job for 37 weeks -- almost 10 months -- and still not find one (that's the average here). And it's where you send your children to bed without dinner, not because they've been bad, but because there's no dinner to eat (just like the parents of nearly 745,000 Chicagoland children).

Our report also shows that without government assistance, these numbers would be even bleaker. Things like food stamps, unemployment insurance, and medial assistance programs were critical lifelines that kept many families afloat and out of poverty.

Affordable housing programs also proved to have powerful anti-poverty effects. Even with the limited capacity of the programs, housing assistance lifted 70,000 children out of poverty. That's 70,000 children who had a safe place to call home.

Unfortunately, our report also shows that while these safety net programs responded quickly to hardship, they have not grown enough in size and reach to meet increasing need. Families continue to struggle to make ends meet, even if that means postponing rent payments, dipping into retirement savings, or going without the medicines they need.

That's a tough pill to swallow. It's tough not only because we know the situation is dire, but because the hurt is visible on the street, in our families, and in our homes. The toughest situations are often those that offer the greatest opportunities for growth, though.

By shining a light on the suffering that exists among those who live in poverty, we can address it, find solutions to solve it and ultimately offer a helping hand when families are in the greatest need. That way, we can ensure everyone has a lifeline to the rainbow at the end of the storm.