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There were 43.6 million Americans living in poverty in 2009.

Congress’ strong polarization clear in poverty scorecard

by Diana Novak
Feb 10, 2011

Illinois falls in the middle in a new ranking of states by support for anti-poverty legislation, but the recent election of four Republican Congressmen may change that.

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law released its Poverty Scorecard on Monday, giving each congressman a letter grade based on how they voted for bills the center chose for their effect on low-income citizens. There were 16 House votes and 14 Senate votes recommended by experts in 20 different fields.

Bills used this year include extensions of unemployment insurance in the Senate and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the House. Ultimately, eight of the 24 bills considered were signed into law.

The Shriver Center lists Illinois’ most recent poverty rate at 12.4 percent, just short of the 2009 national average of 14.3 percent—its highest level in 15 years.

Not one of Illinois’ Democratic legislators received below an A for their votes, while the state’s highest scoring Republican, Mark Kirk, received a C.

Dan Lesser, director of economic security at the center and the creator of the scorecard, said this trend is true nationally. Very few Republicans scored above a C—and only one Democrat scored below a B.

“There aren’t too many people in the middle—there’s always a few that get B’s and C’s, but not very many, so we’re kind of at two extremes now,” Lesser said. “There just doesn’t seem to be much moderation out there.”

Nicole Kazee, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the trend is linked to a high level of party discipline within Congress.

“Republicans often vote together on issues and Democrats often vote together on issues, which is why we are seeing so much uniformity here,” Kazee said. “And [it’s] why we’re seeing the party split, because in addition to that party discipline, we’re seeing very high levels of polarization.”

Kazee said Republicans scored on the low side because many of the bills considered to be anti-poverty legislation go against Republican ideas of the role of government.

“There is a difference in governing philosophy, where Republicans don’t necessarily believe that government should be responsible for helping the poor,” Kazee said. “Part of this is about the way of helping the poor—it involves expanding government in some way.”

It is important to consider that the Shriver Center clearly favors more government action to eliminate poverty, as based on the grading scale, Kazee said.

In a congressional year with a number of formerly Democratic seats becoming Republican, will Illinois’ poverty score decline?

“We’ve got to wait and see what happens,” Lesser said. “Unfortunately, it is pretty polarized between the parties on what we think are the most important poverty related issues.”

Delegates are likely to vote on the legislation that pertains to the role of government, Kazee said, although it’s too hard to use this statistic to determine what will happen with the poverty rate in the state.

“The biggest single thing is how the economy does, and if the economy gets better, the poverty rate is going to go down, regardless of who makes up our congressional delegation or what kinds of legislation come through Congress,” Kazee said.