State poverty commission takes testimony

The number of Illinois residents living in extreme poverty is dramatically rising, while homelessness among public school students has doubled in less than a decade.

What qualifies as extreme poverty? The Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty, now holding its 2012 public hearings, says it’s a household earning less than 50% of federal poverty level. For a family of four, that’s the equivalent of surviving on less than $11,175 a year. 

During the commission’s Monday hearing at Chicago City Colleges’ Truman campus, the panel heard powerful testimony from Starnica Rodgers, a 19-year-old mother active in CCH’s Youth Futures program. Starnica spoke about how she would have to go hungry when she lived in a youth shelter while attending night classes at Truman.

“The shelter I was in served dinner at 6 and most of the time I would go to school hungry. When I got back there after classes, dinner would be gone,” she said.

Starnica said full-time low-income students should be able to qualify for SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Chicago’s homeless youth task force, on which CCH partners, has recommended that Illinois amend its SNAP policies so that community colleges can be considered training sites. That would enable low-income students to apply for SNAP benefits.

Also testifying was Patricia Rivera, director of Chicago HOPES and a long-time CCH volunteer. She cited sharp increases in student homelessness, including 17,255 students identified last year in Chicago Public Schools, a 10% increase, and more than 48,000 statewide.

Ms. Rivera pointedly noted the critical need for Illinois to fund schools to provide adequate staff and services to aid these vulnerable students. She also spoke to the negative impact of a shelter system which forces families to move over and over again, causing multiple school changes and disrupting important services such as the HOPES shelter-based tutoring program.

Established in 2008, the poverty commission seeks, by 2015, to cut by half the number of people living in extreme poverty by advocating for measures that assist the state’s poorest citizens. More than 6% of Illinois residents — 823,400 people — were living in extreme poverty in fall 2011, according to the commission’s latest annual report.

The state task force concludes its 2012 hearings with two sessions next week in southern Illinois. Among those attending will be CCH Associate Policy Director Eithne McMenamin, a founding member of the poverty commission.

– Laurene Heybach & Anne Bowhay