In mid-December, the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty released a strategy for cutting the state’s extreme poverty rate in half by 2015. Extreme poverty here means, as it usually does, living below 50% of the federal poverty line.
I find a couple of things about this strategy interesting.
One is the fact that it exists at all. Because it’s not an agenda some nonprofit organization developed. The commission is an official entity established by the state legislature to do exactly what it’s done.
Not only that, but established when the recession was well under way, by a unanimous vote in both the House and the Senate. This could provoke either hope or skepticism. Inclining to the former, I think it suggests that Republicans and Democrats alike felt the need for a road map.
And they’ve got one. A year-by-year plan, phasing in a total of 42 recommendations in seven major areas.
We who live in the District know that strategies don’t necessarily guide policy decisions. Witness our strategy for ending homelessness by 2014.
Nevertheless, I think Illinois may be better off for having a holistic view of its poverty problem and how to address it — as indeed would the District and other jurisdictions.
A second interesting thing is how the commission approached its task. From the outset, it established three types of recommendations it would produce, each corresponding to a sector of the state’s very poor population.
As we might expect, there are recommendations for working-age adults who need more education and training to get jobs that will pay enough to lift them and their families out of extreme poverty. There are recommendations for increasing access to public benefits for people who work but don’t make enough — and in a couple of cases, for increasing the benefits.
But there are also recommendations aimed at ensuring that people who can’t and aren’t expected to work — seniors, children and individuals with severe disabilities — can live “in dignity.”
Nothing radical about the recommendations themselves. The commission clearly felt constrained by the realities the government faces — a weakened safety net, a rising poverty rate, an immediate budget shortfall of at least $13 billion and a huge unfunded pension liability.
Yet the commission takes pains to make room for what’s essentially the very old concept of the deserving poor. The big difference is that, in the commission’s strategy, all poor are deserving.
Which bring me to the last and perhaps most interesting thing. The legislature charged the commission with addressing poverty in Illinois “consistent with international human rights standards.” This influenced both the commission’s process and its product.
It essentially justifies its proposals by citing and elaborating on the provision in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.”
This, the commission says, is based on our American tradition — a stretch I think, but probably needed to domesticate its vision.
We’re accustomed these days to seeing anti-poverty strategies justified on economic grounds. Much about the long-term costs of child poverty, for example — drains on public benefits programs, costs due to criminal behavior, reduced national productivity, etc.
We need these arguments, especially for policymakers fixated on the bottom line. But it’s good and important, I think, to reaffirm basic values — justice, compassion, the intrinsic worth of our fellow creatures.
That’s where the commission comes from. It prefaces its proposals with the proposition that “every human being deserves to have access to adequate amenities to fulfill his or her potential.”
In other words, the standard of living rights in the Universal Declaration — sufficient food, housing, medical care, social services and security when they can’t earn a living — “should be guaranteed, protected and made available to all people just because they exist as people.”
Imagine what would happen if our government officials and the majority of Americans who elect them felt this way.