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State commission to recommend solutions to decrease extreme poverty

By Fawn Clark/For CU-CitizenAccess '” The Commission on the Elimination of Poverty will make final recommendations later this month on steps to decrease the rate of extreme poverty in Illinois by 50 percent over the next five years.

Commission members say they hope the next legislature will act on the recommendations by next spring.

Since its creation in 2008, the commission has been working toward a goal of eliminating extreme poverty, which is defined as a family that earns less than half of the poverty level. In Illinois, a family of four that makes $11,025 a year or less is considered to be in extreme poverty.

The commission held three hearings '“in Danville in February, in Chicago in March, and in Carterville in April '“ to get comments from citizens.

Doug Schenkelberg, Associate Director of Policy & Advocacy at Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights,said each of the hearings brought out 30 people or more, with about 10 from each group giving personal testimonies.

"The hearings are exceptionally helpful because it's really easy when you're drawing plans to just look at statistics and you get drawn away from the people actually experiencing it,' said Schenkelberg. "So, the hearings connected the big issues to the people.'

 "The hearings were worthwhile because it spread the word in the community about what we were doing and provided the opportunity for input,' said said Andy Kulczycki, Director of the Community Service Center of Northern Champaign and a member on the Commission. "But some of the concerns were very localized.'

Kulczycki said that Heartland Alliance provides the commission with a vast amount of statistical information, helping them to determine what legislation to suggest to the Governor in order to meet the needs of those in poverty.

Kulczycki said the commission has drafted three to four pages of recommendations for legislative changes that it will present to the governor upon the release of its final plan this month.

"Of course, we'll have to whittle that down to a smaller list with the recommendations that we see as being the most likely to result in real change,' Kulczycki said. 

State Sen. Michael Freirichs of Urbana, who also sits on the commission and was instrumental in its creation, said the commission has held many meetings over the last several months to do just that.

"We've broken down into smaller working groups to increase efficiency,' said Freirichs.

Freirichs said the commission hopes to have new legislations passed by this spring. 

Schenkelberg said that he thinks the Commission has a huge task on its hands and the people need help now more than ever.

Between 2008 and 2009, the number of Illinois residents living in extreme poverty went up by 70,000  to a total of 670,000, Schenkelberg, said.  He blames unequipped safety net programs for the increase.

"People want to work, people want to support themselves and their kids. They don't want handouts, but they need support. They have barriers in front of them,' Schenkelberg said.

These barriers include bad education systems, lack of family support, and the lack of support systems in low-income communities, he said.

According to Schenkelberg, many of the hearings' attendees were people who had been able to pull themselves out of poverty and wanted the same for others in their communities

"A lot of the people testifying were people who were on the path to being more secure. One, they were passionate about being on that path. Two, they had a belief that we had a responsibility to help people get on that path,' he said.

 Schenkelberg said it's critical that legislators find the political will to act on the commission's recommendations and making eliminating extreme poverty a priority.

Kulczycki said many of the recommendations will require increased state funding, which is uncertain. 

 "That's the million dollar question. The state is so broke that I don't see how anything involving money will end up panning out at this time,' said Kulczycki. "But the commission remains hopeful.'

After the final plan is released, the commission will submit annual reports and hold annual hearings to get feedback from the public.

 "Getting these people above extreme poverty is the first step.,' Schenkelberg said. "It's a very doable, realistic thing if we all work together.'

Recommendations Under Consideration by the Commission on the Elimination of Poverty, according to Doug Schenkelberg:

'¢          Increase the earned income tax credit, a refundable federal income tax credit for low to moderate income working individuals and families. Right now in Illinois it's at 5 percent of the federal level. This could put more money in the hands of people need it.

'¢          Provide additional scholarship dollars to people in extreme poverty who want to attend community college.

'¢          Make state offices more efficient. Many are understaffed. Providing more staff would make it easier for these offices to do their jobs and move on to other issues. 

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