Kimberly Drew remembers a woman who testified before the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty in August. As she stood in front of the microphone, the woman described the last few years of her life. She had gotten pregnant. Then, she lost her job. After that, her car broke down.
“By the time that she gave birth to her child, she had no money in the bank,” said Drew, a policy associate at the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights.
Her story is not uncommon, says Drew. In fact, more than ten percent of Chicago's citizens live in what's called “extreme poverty”--living under less than half of the poverty line.
Chicago has the third highest rate of extreme poverty of the nation's 10 largest cities, at 10.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey. Philadelphia is first at 12.9 percent, followed by Phoenix at 10.7 percent. San Jose, Calif., was No. 10, with 5.5 percent.
Here are the country's 10 largest cities by population, and their rates of extreme poverty:
For a family of three, extreme poverty means surviving on about $9,500 or less for the entire year. That means incredibly tough choices, says Drew.
“We hear a lot about families that are really struggling about how to make choices about how to spend the little income that they do have: choices between whether you pay for medicine or food, whether you pay the rent or electricity,” said Drew.
Chicago's extreme poverty rate has been relatively stagnant for the last few years, fluctuating between 9.4 and 9.8 percent between 2007 and 2011. Drew says families living at this level of poverty have an even tougher time moving up the economic ladder. Many are working minimum wage jobs with few opportunities for advancement, often unable to even get full-time hours.
Why is Chicago's rate higher than cities of a comparable size like Houston or Los Angeles? Drew isn’t sure. However, there are specific policies and programs, she says, that can help reduce our extreme poverty rate. The State of Illinois developed the 37-member Commission on the Elimination of Poverty in 2008. Its charge is to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015.
The commission consists of elected officials and leaders in government and nonprofit organizations. In 2010, it released a strategic plan to reduce poverty, and meets several times a year to track the plan's progress.
Despite the commission, public officials have cut programs aimed at low-income families, and new policies to help them have stalled. According to the Commission's 2012 annual report, 12 bills were introduced that year in the Illinois legislature that would have addressed the needs of families in extreme poverty. Only one was signed into law. Those bills included efforts to raise the minimum wage, ban the state from asking on a job application if an applicant has a criminal record, and increasing the availability of charity care in Illinois hospitals.
“We've become pretty complacent and we haven't prioritized policy solutions and programs that will help people climb out of poverty,” said Drew.
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