01/17/2013 03:49 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

The Numbers Game: Illinois's 33 Percent

This week, Social IMPACT Research Center, the research arm of Heartland Alliance, released its Illinois's 33 Percent: Report on Illinois Poverty. The findings are shocking -- a full 15 percent of Illinoisans, 1.9 million people -- live in poverty, more than 650,000 of whom are children. A full 60 percent of Americans will find themselves in poverty at some point in their lives, which for an individual means they earn an income of just under $11,500. They're numbers that should be leading the nightly news and reminding us that the recession isn't over for everyone.

Unfortunately, I think that this seems like a concept, rather than a reality, to many people -- merely numbers on a page. We know people live in poverty, but we have little sense of what that means for their everyday lives. In my work at Heartland Alliance, the Midwest's leading anti-poverty organization, I've seen that reality all too often. It's the painful reality of feeding, housing and clothing a family of four on about $23,000 a year. And it's the reality of having nothing to fall back on. A simple $10 bottle of antibiotics can mean an unpaid electricity bill.

A woman from DuPage County who spoke to my colleagues recently brought the reality of poverty into startling clarity. She works a minimum-wage job, making $8.25 per hour. This part-time job is her only source of income, and she's been unable to find other work to supplement it. Altogether, she grosses $99 every week.

"Even a one dollar cup of coffee isn't possible for me. To me that's like $100," she said. It's such a small thing -- a single dollar. But that's exactly the point. When you live in poverty there is no such thing as a small expenditure. Every penny counts.

One would think that this crisis would become less dire as the recession fades, but our research shows it's just the opposite. As lawmakers in DC and at home in Illinois look for places to cut spending, programs and policies that fight poverty are on the chopping block, making it harder for people to access housing, healthcare, jobs and justice -- the four components to a stable, healthy, independent life. We can't just stand by and watch this happen as those in danger slip further and further into poverty.

It's time for the state of Illinois and all state governments to take action. Increasing funding for lynchpin programs such as homelessness prevention and increasing the minimum wage are good places to start. These programs not only offer emergency assistance to families in crisis, they provide them the support they need to get and stay on their feet.

No one should have to walk the tightrope of poverty, knowing they can't even spare a dollar. With 125 years of experience, we're rededicating ourselves to our mission of ending poverty and we know what works -- offering housing, healthcare, jobs and justice to those in need, and promoting policies that make these crucial services more accessible. We're advocating for policy change and we're making our voices heard. Now it's time for our state and our nation to take action.