Children's advocates say one of the most important ways parents
can bolster their kids' chances is to get active in changing public
"The ongoing state fiscal crisis continues to erode
investments in children and families," says a July Voices for
Illinois Children policy bulletin.
A key issue to take up with state representatives before
the fall veto session, which begins in late November: Advocates
believe the House of Representatives should approve legislation
passed by the Senate to funnel an additional $175 million into
General State Aid and early childhood education.
Those who are divorced, widowed or separated are more likely to
fall down the economic ladder than those who are married.
If men and women raised in a middle-class home obtain
education after high school, they are less likely to be downwardly
Thirty percent of white women fall out of the middle
class, but only 21 percent of white men do. Additionally, race is a
factor in who falls out of the middle class, but only for
Thirty-eight percent of black men fall out of the middle,
compared to 21 percent of white men. In contrast, white, black and
Hispanic women are equally likely to drop out of the middle
Source: Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking Up
from the American Dream
Americans cling to the conviction that our kids can
grow up to be anyone they want-no matter how humble their
Well after the shockwaves of the recession first rocked
suburban and urban neighborhoods and corporate high-rises of the
Gold Coast, nearly three-quarters of people in 2009 held fast to
their conviction that hard work and personal talents trump being
born into a wealthy family in the game of getting ahead in
All we have to do here in Illinois is look around to see
Abraham Lincoln. Oprah Winfrey. Barack Obama.
Such social mobility came into question at this year's
Kids Count symposium in Chicago, where child and parenting
advocates from across the state came together to brainstorm ways to
fortify the future for the next crop of Illinois leaders, workers
A reality check turned up some hard facts showing that
Abe, Oprah and Obama may be the exception rather than the
"Chicago's kids aren't moving up, they're moving
out," says Sid Mohn, president of Heartland Alliance, a
Chicago human rights organization. "Out of opportunity, out of good
jobs, and out of good health. We need to return to a time when kids
could count on moving up and a brighter future than their
In Chicago and all across the country, a prominent school
of sociologists says, kids who come up in poor homes pretty much
stay poor while kids born into wealthy families tend to-you guessed
While we lay claim to social mobility as a unique
attribute of the United States, the bitter truth is that other
countries like Canada and Denmark boast far more mountable social
The reason it's getting to be so hard to move from one
class to another is that the middle class is an endangered social
stratus, says Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist who specializes
in economic and educational bias.
"When the rungs of the ladder get farther apart, it gets
harder to climb up," he says.
Apparently, the folks on the ground are getting the memo.
Half of those surveyed in a new poll commissioned by The Economist
think the next generation will have a lower quality of life, twice
the number that thought living standards will improve.
In Chicago, the rungs of the ladders have been decaying
Technology dimmed demand for middle-skilled workers and
union busting drove wages downward. The recession swept job loss
and foreclosure throughout the `burbs like a tsunami. Tax rolls
tanked and state revenues sank. Budget cuts ravished social
infrastructure like schools, recreational programs and crucial
safety nets, policy experts at Voices for Illinois Children
In addition to mounting college loans and bleak job
prospects, young Americans now have something else weighing them
down: the widest wealth gap ever between the young and
Will our kids be better off than we are? It's not the
no-brainer we'd like it to be.
Caine and Carolyn Harris aren't ashamed to admit they count on
preschool, health and food assistance programs as they try to tug
their family up the ladder of success.
The social safety nets seem to be working the way they're
supposed to. The Harrises are enjoying a modest measure of
Early childhood programs have kept their four kids off the mean
streets of Roseland since they were 3. Carolyn, 29, is working on a
college degree in hospital administration. She and Caine, who runs
a towing service, invested money last year that they scraped up
partly from earned income tax credits to help buy and fix up their
"Lately, we are starting to feel we may be getting ahead a
little bit," Carolyn says. "But I don't know how we could have
gotten as far as we've come if we hadn't had the help that we
The Harrises and others like them may be among an endangered
species of families who get a civic boost to a better life.
Widening rips in the social safety net are one of the growing
opportunity gaps threatening to render the American dream of social
mobility a fading illusion. Slices in preschool program funding,
tighter eligibility limits for Medicaid health benefits, deep
slashes in state aid to public schools and cuts in federal heating
programs are broadening barriers to Illinois children and families
trying to rise above their circumstances.
More and more, lawmakers pulling purse strings "insist
cash-strapped families pull themselves up by their boot straps, but
they remove the very boot straps that allow them to do that,"
Ricardo Estrada, president of Metropolitan Family Services, said at
this year's Kids Count Symposium in Chicago.
"It's an anti-opportunity approach that counters the American
tradition," he says.
Over the past several decades, Illinois earned a name as one of
the best states in the nation to bring up baby. Just two years ago,
we ranked fifth among the states in early childhood education, with
54 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool. Last year, just 3.7
percent of Illinois children lacked health insurance coverage,
compared with 7.5 percent nationwide. Only four states have lower
uninsured rates for children.
But family advocates say the recession is tarnishing the golden
era for Illinois children, as state budget cuts deplete investments
for years funneled to its upcoming generation.
Now one of four Illinois children under age 5 lives in poverty,
according to results released in September from the American
Community Survey. That hiked last year's Illinois child poverty
rate to 21.6 percent, up from 19.4 percent in 2010 and 15.4 percent
in 2000. In real lives, it means nearly 660,000 Illinois children
lived in poverty last year. Sixty thousand more kids are
impoverished than in 2010 and 160,000 more than in 2000.
But that's not the worst of it, children's advocates say.
Today, 10 percent of Illinois children-300,000 children-live in
high-poverty communities, making it the third highest in the
Midwest, after Michigan and Ohio, according to the U.S. Census
stats. High-poverty communities are not only more likely to have
high rates of crime and violence, but also to have sickness, mental
health problems and unemployment, says Gaylord Gieseke, president
of Voices for Illinois Children.
"We know that children who grow up in concentrated poverty,
regardless of their family's income, are more likely to experience
harmful levels of stress, more likely to struggle in school, and
less likely to achieve economic success as adults," she says in a
recent policy statement.
Early childhood education is one perk that helps kids get ahead
in life. While Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed 2013 budget had a $20
million block grant for early childhood, the General Assembly did
an about-face and cut funding by $25 million. Couple that with late
state payments to preschools, and the result is 18,000 tots dropped
from early childhood program over the past three years. New cuts
will keep 8,000 more young children at home, according to
predictions from Voices for Illinois Children, a Chicago-based
child advocacy organization.
"Illinois had become a leader in early childhood education,"
Gieseke says. "It's unfortunate that progress has been eroding,
especially since we know that children who receive support early
have a greater chance of success in school, at work and throughout
Among other setbacks to kids trying to get ahead is $161 million
in lost funds for Illinois General State Aid to schools this year,
delivering the toughest thump to kids in school districts with
large numbers of low-income students. You know, the ones that need
public money most.
The Department of Children and Family services took the hardest
hit of any state agency, losing more than $100 million in cash
flow. There is a movement in Congress to replace the Supplemental
Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) with a federal block grant to
the states, which child advocates forecast will drain a fifth of
funding for the food program.
This year the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the
program that keeps the heat on for so many families, is losing a
quarter of its funding. Federal Department of Energy weatherization
coffers took a 60 percent hit, its income slashed from $174.3
million to $68 million.
Politicians are stalling on community resource budget talks
until after the November elections, says Kris White, executive
director for the Will County Center for Community Concerns, which
helps plug families into resources for assistance.
"We in the Community Action and nonprofit networks are holding
our breaths as to what the fiscal cliff talks will do to our
funding, which will greatly affect how we can service our
communities," she says.
But there are a couple of positive patches to the safety
Under new changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example,
a single mother with one child earning only $12,800 a year will
save an additional $154 on her taxes. A married couple with three
children earning $30,000 a year will save $199 more on their
"Low-income families will be able to use the extra credit to pay
for essentials such as bills, food and transportation. And that
extra spending stimulates local economies, as well," says Manya
Khan, assistant director of the Voices for Illinois Children Fiscal
With the recession welcoming more families to the school of hard
knocks and government-backed assistance growing harder to find,
families are flooding community and church-based programs to find a
foothold to a better life.
"In these tough economic times, the need in our communities are
far greater so any cuts in services will hurt our most vulnerable
population," White says.
At Morning Star Mission in Joliet, which runs shelters, free
meals, personal counseling and a food pantry, requests for shelter
are up 26 percent over the past few years, says Director Marilyn
Farmer. This year, the mission handed out 300 back-to-school kits
in a yearly effort to give free school supplies that used to serve
Well over half of those who come to Morning Star Mission looking
for a place to live are families. The mission's 72 beds for
families always are full, with a waiting list 25 deep, Farmer
One of the families seeing Morning Star's hospitality is
36-year-old Brian Brooks, with his two sons Brian Jr., 12, and
Being a single dad looking for a lift up the social ladder comes
with special obstacles, he says. He believes he was turned down for
housing assistance he would probably have landed if he'd been a
mother instead of a father. He found his way to Morning Star after
passing up several neighborhoods he feared would be risky
environments for his boys.
A glass installation and motorcycle mechanic by trade, Brooks
has big plans for himself and his sons. He's proud that his boys do
well in school. Brian Jr. is determined to become a police officer
and Jayelin shows promise as an architect or engineer. Brooks
yearns to earn a Master's degree in social work and manage a
shelter of his own. He's dropped out of college a couple of times
before, but that's not going to stop him from giving it another
"I tell my sons the way to get to the next level is just to do a
little better one step at a time," he says. "It just feels good to
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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