Chicago's disappearing middle class

In a struggling economy families struggle with social mobility

 
 

By Robyn Monaghan

Contributor

Americans cling to the conviction that our kids can grow up to be anyone they want-no matter how humble their beginnings.

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 life.

All we have to do here in Illinois is look around to see it's true.

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 and innovators.

A reality check turned up some hard facts showing that Abe, Oprah and Obama may be the exception rather than the rule.

"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 parents."

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 it-prosper.

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 ladders.

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 for years.

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 say.

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 old.

Will our kids be better off than we are? It's not the no-brainer we'd like it to be.

Squeezed by belt tightening

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 success.

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 own home.

"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 did."

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.

Snipping boot straps

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 their lives."

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 net.

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 taxes.

"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 Policy Center.

Do better, feel better

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 just 75.

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 says.

One of the families seeing Morning Star's hospitality is 36-year-old Brian Brooks, with his two sons Brian Jr., 12, and Jayelin, 10.

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 try.

"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 do better."

 
 
 





 
 
 
Copyright 2014 Wednesday Journal Inc. All rights reserved. Chicago web development by liQuidprint