President Lyndon Johnson declared the federal War on Poverty in 1964. It foundered on the shores of Vietnam when we opted to fund guns over butter. Fifty years later, there is renewed interest in eliminating poverty.
Even at the local level, government can, and should, play a role in eliminating poverty, for example — by passing a Living Wage Ordinance (LWO).
For 10 years, a group of Oak Park citizens have worked, without success, to have the village board pass such an ordinance. We originally proposed that those covered receive $13.85/hour, inclusive of employee benefits. We now think it should be at least $15/hour.
We focused on three groups of workers: 1) village employees; 2) employees of contractors and sub-contractors hired by the village; and 3) employees of businesses or organizations receiving a significant financial grant from the village (eventually pegged at $50K/year).
In 2008, 60% of Oak Park voters (94% of precincts) supported a living wage in an advisory referendum. The village board referred the proposed LWO to the Community Relations Commission (CRC). After 13 months of study, the commission recommended passage by a vote of 7-2. The board accepted the report but stripped the supportive recommendation.
Among current board members, Colette Lueck, Glenn Brewer Adam Salzman and Robert Tucker have expressed a willingness to support putting the LWO on the board agenda. Despite numerous reminders and requests over the past two years, none has acted.
Poverty exists in Oak Park. The Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry records show that in 2013, they provided food to 2,484 unique individuals residing in Oak Park zip codes. This is 18% of their client base. On average, they figure that each pantry visitor made 3.4 trips per year. This means our food pantry supplied a week's worth of groceries to approximately 8,000 food-insecure people from Oak Park last year.
The Illinois Department of Education reports that 627 students in Oak Park District 97 elementary schools are eligible for free meals, with another 129 eligible for reduced-cost meals. The report shows 383 students in our two public junior high schools eligible for free meals, with another 88 eligible for reduced-cost meals. Oak Park and River Forest High School has 480 students eligible for free meals and another 101 eligible for reduced-cost meals.
West Suburban PADS also keeps records of who they serve by residential zip code. In 2013 they provided relief to 123 individuals from Oak Park. This is 14% of their client base.
In the new 2014 Report on Illinois Poverty issued by the Social IMPACT Research Center of the Heartland Alliance, 1.9 million Illinois residents (14.7% of our population) currently live below the poverty line. That matches the percentage from 1960, before President Johnson declared our War on Poverty. The rate for Illinois children living below the poverty line went from 16.5% in 1960 to 20.7% in 2012.
This is a disgrace and remedies are available.
Poverty is destructive to individuals and communities. Business opportunities and commercial development are not the only issues that demand attention. It's past time for our village board to deal with the Living Wage Ordinance — a tool proven to lift people out of poverty.
Dr. William Barclay, Gail Hafner, Ruth Kovacs, Paul Sakol, Bruce Samuels, Jan Sansone, Gary Schwab, Peg Strobel
For the Greater Oak Park chapter of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America