Tasking Poverty

By Karen S. Lynch

   In a second floor courtroom at the Knox County Courthouse, a display containing four bar graphs of evidence stood in front of the ornate judicial bench. After a one-hour formal presentation, a spirited debate consumed an additional 90 minutes. There was no judge, jury, or attorneys present.

   The public press conference held last Saturday in the courthouse was in response to the placement of Knox County on the state’s poverty warning list for the third straight year, one of 22 counties in Illinois named to the list.

   Salvador Garza, community and economic developer for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, publicly announced a task force named Team Knox County. Over the last six months, seven members of the task force team have been quietly identifying causes of growing poverty rates, rated at 14.7 percent in Knox County. Garza said the task force wanted to get their bearings first but decided to go public after publication of the state’s latest poverty warning list.

   Members of Team Knox County consist of a diverse group of individuals. Salvador Garza is the founder and Chair. Garza heads the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Returns. Also on the team, Diane Eager from Bridgeway Mental Health, Rhonda Brady from Knox County Area Project, Carrie McKillip and Cheryl Geitner, both from the University of Illinois Extension Knox County with Kathleen Brown from the Macomb Extension Center. Sue Schurke represents the Galesburg Congressional Office of U.S. Congressman Phil Hare, rounding out the members of Team Knox County.

   Members of the task force identified and addressed four key statistics showing ratios between the state averages and those in Knox County including, high school graduation, teen birth, unemployment, and poverty rates. The group is seeking volunteers from the community to assist with ideas in their efforts to diminish poverty rates and work on the key areas they have identified.

   Garza cites social problems and growing poverty in Knox County are partially due to the loss of good manufacturing jobs with benefits but added causes of poverty are more complex than any single sector. “There are no easy or quick solutions.” Garza called for a group effort between local, state, and federal government levels – in concert with individuals to work towards finding solutions for the causes of poverty in Knox County.  

   U.S. Congressman Phil Hare, D-Rock Island, said poverty in Knox County is a problem that is not going to be solved over night and requires a great deal of effort and a lot of cooperation with some thinking outside of the box.

   Hare says there is a need to develop a system of best practices for planning, funding, and developing measures for success. Hare promised to do everything he can at the federal level. “From my perspective this is my home town, as you know. You are not supposed to play favorites as a member of Congress, but I do – particularly with this city and this county. This city and this county has been though a lot.”

   Congressman Hare said the coming together Saturday was a continuation of the dialog that began last year at Carl Sandburg College on the correlation between education and poverty. “Now that we have identified the problems we need to take that next step forward.” Thanking the group for their efforts of working on the problem Hare said he needed to identify how best to help, “Whether that means finances or involving more agencies – but whatever is decided it must be done in a spirit of cooperation.” Hare thanked Garza for taking the initiative to form Team Knox County – a name he said he liked because it was going to take a team effort.

   Hare summarized a meeting last Monday with former Butler worker, Bill Fair and his wife Donna as an example of a system failure. The Fair family lost their health care and life insurance. Bill’s son, Eric had also worked at Butler and had no health insurance. He died last March of a heart attack, while his mother also had a heart attack the same day. The family is now $140,000 in debt. “Here is a man who worked all his life for good benefits and he lost them. We are a better country than that.”

   Hare said he often works across the aisle of Congress, calling Don Moffitt a good friend. “One thing I have learned in 15 months of doing this job, if you are ever going to be really successful, it has to be done in a bipartisan way. Don Moffitt is one of the most solid people in the Illinois General Assembly.”

   Speaking after Hare, Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson thanked everyone for their participation in such an important issue in the county he represents. “The first step to developing a solution is the acknowledgement that we have a problem.” Moffitt placed his thoughts on the problem in a local context. “In the effort to coordinate a response plan, it is very important to help reduce and prevent any duplication. We don’t need more than one agency doing the same thing. This effort is an opportunity to use limited resources to the best possible advantage.”

   Moffitt expressed pleasure at the announcement of a task force to address poverty as timely. “Being on the state poverty warning list one year – it might be an abnormality, two years than it is a concern, but if it is on three years in a row it certainly needs direct and immediate attention.”

   Moffitt emphasized the impact of student graduation rates in relationship to poverty. “Students need to make the connection between learning and future earning. According to reports, since 1980 medium hourly earnings rates have fallen 29 percent for Illinois residents with less than a high school diploma. The message there is powerful and strong to keep the kids in school.”

   Among inmates in the department of corrections, 85 percent are high school dropouts, according to Moffitt. He also quoted statistics it cost more to incarcerate young offenders than to educate them. He called for additional funding for education and discussed the disparity in gender of teachers, saying teens often needed a strong male roll model when they had none. He attributed teacher pay as one reason it is hard to attract and retain good teachers.

   “The state government needs to get its own fiscal house in order. It needs to pay its bills on time to be able to help local governments and schools district do the things that need to be done and make that 23rd and 24th school aid payment. We need to adopt only practices that encourage economic growth.”

   In addressing poverty related to jobs, Moffitt said, “The state must do more to obtain and grow and attract good jobs – the kind you can support a family on – the kind with benefits.” Moffitt discussed the need for an economic policy, what he called, long suits to stimulate growth “Where we have an absolute competitive advantage are the railroad systems. We are the crossroads of the nation.”

   “Agriculture is the other long suit, where we can compete or exceed any other part of the world in our ability to produce agricultural products.” Bio fuels are better for the environment and profits stay domestically and are value added for the producers. Moffitt said there is a need to connect the two – with trains to haul the grain and to burn bio fuels.”

   Moffitt commented he liked Hare’s approach on identifying earmarks, Hare added, “If policies are causing poverty than resources should follow.” Both lawmakers spoke about high energy costs and the adverse effect on food prices and other product deliveries affected by high fuel cost. Hare said there was a need for additional refineries and alternative energy sources with incentives for geothermal and E85 fuel.

   Allen Pickrel, Knox County Board Chair also stressed the importance of education and working on the problem of teen pregnancy causing an increase in drop out rates. Pickrel said, “We’ve hit a speed bump right now in this county and we just need to overcome that speed bump. It didn’t happen overnight and it isn’t going to go away overnight. It’s great to have another organization to help overcome that speed bump.”

   Garza spoke about the job market and business prospects that look to locating in the community. One of the first things business look at, according to Garza is the schools. When The Register-Mail headline reads, “Two Schools Fail” there is a negative perception of the community. Garza also commented how the media plays a role in presenting a good image to prospective business prospects. “They have a lot of information about your community. If you try to misrepresent – that leaves a disingenuous image.”

   The discussion on Saturday is supposed to be a new beginning to solving some of the factors causing social-economic problems identified as leading to poverty in Knox County. Team Knox County hopes to change some of those problems leading to poverty by working together as a community. According to Garza, “The structure of Team Knox County must maintain neutrality, if you wish. In order for us to be believable is to make sure we are not working an agenda.”

   There is an “inconvenient truth” for those who know the reality of staying in the “system” – where they can draw more assistance in welfare than trying to work minimum wage jobs, pay for day care for their children and lack affordable health care insurance. The truth is they are better off not working or legally getting married. While there will always be those who prefer to take it easy – letting taxpayers pay their way – there are just as many who are not proud of being in the welfare system but feel they have no good alternatives.

   Realistically, statistics and bar graph chart figures can easily be skewed by many variables, such as population decline or the influx of low-income families from other areas. The state of Illinois has a voucher system that allows low-income citizens to move wherever affordable housing exist. Some of those individuals have moved to Knox County while others have left to find work in other cities. The high cost of gas may force more residents to move closer to where they can find work.

   Numbers cannot be the only factor to represent the faces of poverty. The problem is complex and unique to every individual. People are not just a statistic, even if they are one of those individuals or families counted in the numbers on four charts.

   The only numbers that truly matter are those in the individual’s pocket. Team Knox County worked hard to put together their numbers with the information they had available. However, there are many more people who “fall through the cracks” of statistical analysis and are not represent in some arbitrary number.

   Unemployment rates do not count those whose unemployment has expired. The under-employed or the “working poor” are statistically unseen, except in their difficulties to purchase goods and services. The working poor show up in overwhelming demands on food banks, in reduced sales tax revenue and sometimes in foreclosures on homes and the homeless.  

   There are those living in a gap – earning slightly above poverty that do not qualify for any financial aid programs, yet do not make a living wage. Singles without children, the elderly, or families working two or three part-time jobs often fall into that gap – penalized in a way for making the effort to support themselves and their families. Teen pregnancy rates do not count young single mothers who are over twenty-years-old, yet face the same hardships as teens.

   Garza is correct – there are no easy or quick answers. Perhaps there are no answers at all, without a major paradigm shift in the way the current systems operate. One thing is certain – tough problems require answers to tough questions. Solutions require hard work and adequate resources.

   The rhetoric last Saturday, touted as “a new beginning” are words of hope. The current needs of many residents of Knox County are those of desperation. Knox County arguably is not better off than we were four years ago.

   The statistics shown on Saturday confirm what many citizens already knew – we need help to find our way back to a path of prosperity. Let us all hope that Team Knox County and the citizens of this county can find a way to that path.