Paychecks & Poverty: Real Household Budgets of Welfare-to-Work Participants

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Executive Summary

In order to shed light on the individual financial and personal situations facing Illinois’ current and former welfare recipients, the Chicago Jobs Council (CJC) engaged the expertise of our Welfare-to-Work Working Group members to conduct surveys of, and convene focus groups with, clients of their employment service programs. As a result of these efforts, CJC received 88 low-income household budget surveys and gained 27 different perspectives from focus group participants. Through specific case studies, this report shows the human consequences of Illinois’ “work first” welfare policies, and provides valuable insight for policymakers, service providers, advocates and the public on strategies still needed to assume an end to poverty.

The case studies provided in this report also illustrate:

  1. The relationship between families’ access to various supports and their financial stability.
  2. The gap between wages earned by families and the income needed to achieve self-sufficiency.
  3. The financial barriers and opportunities that arise when moving from welfare to work.
  4. The current state of the public safety net, unchanged to meet the needs of families in the current economic recession and tight job market.

Ultimately, the case studies show that families remain impoverished despite their best efforts to meet the requirements of Illinois’ welfare program through paid or unpaid work:

  • Ms. Parker* works 30 hours/week at minimum wage to support her four school-age children, and struggles with a $104 monthly debt even if she accesses all available aid.
  • Ms. Johnson works full-time at $8/hour and has only $58 at the end of the month to pay for her and her 11-year-old’s medical, school, transportation and grocery expenses.
  • Ms. Castillo works full-time at $12/hour and lives in debt with her preschooler and 9-year-old after paying for all essential living costs.
  • Ms. Allen meets welfare’s 30-hours-per-week work requirement, but can’t pay for her family’s minimal expenses with the cash grant she and her three young children receive.

If we believe no one should live in poverty, we have failed to create public policies that support families’ best efforts to achieve self-sufficiency. The continued hardships of the Parkers, Johnsons, Castillos, and Allens – and families like them across Illinois – result from a lack of resources and strategies that provide lasting solutions to poverty. To aim for poverty reduction, public policies must provide and guarantee access to:

  1. Income support levels sufficient to ensure adequate housing, nutrition, and health care.
  2. Incentives to pay child support by “passing through” all child support collected.
  3. Flexibility in welfare rules that meet the individual needs of recipients.
  4. Education and training that enhances parents’ skills and earning capacities.
  5. Career counseling that focuses on the quality of initial jobs and opportunities for mobility.
  6. Maximized work supports that help families keep and move up in their jobs.
  7. Accessible aid through linked eligibility requirements, applications, and claim sites.
  8. Public/private efforts that raise the minimum wage, enhance employee assistance programs, and provide career-ladder workplace training.
  9. Expansion of unemployment insurance to protect new and low-income workers laid off.
  10. Tax policies and asset accumulation strategies that secure families’ financial futures.

We must make wise investments in our human capital to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens can take advantage of an economic boom and withstand an economic downturn. The important and informative life stories that follow demand our attention and concern.