March | April 2017

Every Step Can Add Up and Make a Difference

By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Illinois Assistant Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford has worked for years to raise the profile of issues affecting poverty in her state. While she acknowledges there are no simple solutions and that it takes years of prodding to take even small steps, she believes every step can add up to make a significant difference.

Why is poverty an important issue for your state and the entire country?

“I recognize poverty as being one of the underlying causes of so many other issues. In a lot of impoverished communities, you see a lot of unemployment and there’s a lot of crime, a lot of violence and there’s a lot of homelessness. … Until we address the issue of poverty, I believe we’ll never be able to get some of these problems under control. … I think if we can focus our resources more in a particular area and really try to address poverty, it will help everyone. … I think poverty affects us all.”

What do you mean when you say, ‘focus resources in a more particular area’?

“I think if we recognize unemployment to be a challenge, crime, violence, homelessness, the lack of having a quality education. I believe those are the areas that we need to focus resources in because you can help the lives of people who are stricken by poverty by giving them a chance. If we say, ‘we need to create more jobs and target them for individuals who live in poverty,’ what’s challenging is recognizing that many of them are uneducated. … I believe we should do a better job of putting resources in areas that can help with these systemic problems.”
Why have you focused on the minimum wage with regard to fighting poverty?
“If you work 40 hours a week, I don’t understand that you still are poor and live in poverty. It’s not that you’re home and say, ‘I’m going to wait for government to give me a handout.’ … No one should work a minimum wage job and that job not keep up with the cost of inflation. Our current minimum wage is failing us as a society and it’s allowing minimum wage-earning people to still be a part of the poverty numbers.”

How do you convince skeptics that minimum wage jobs affect poverty?

“I’ve addressed the business community quite a bit over the years. … Our children may have a minimum wage-paying job because it’s just the gas money to put in the brand new car you bought them. Or it’s the weekend money to go to the movies or hang out with their friends. When you look at minimum wage in instances for other people, it’s their pay that pays their rent. It’s the pay that buys their family food. And it’s the pay that takes care of the gas and light. … I don’t think raising the minimum wage will solve all our problems. I know that it will give people that are poor more resources to live on. It would better their lives. It will give them the opportunity to give back to the economic structure.”

What can states do differently to address some of those problems?

“We know education can do it. I think education is like a really, really big onion that you have to peel and there are layers to it. So just starting with the opportunity to allow young people to start school. … Early education, investing more dollars in making sure preschool is available in these poverty-stricken areas. … I also believe we should do a better job acknowledging that we have an academic achievement gap and it stems across economic boundaries. … I think having quality teachers in poverty areas is just as important as having quality teachers in wealthy districts. The way we fund our schools based around property taxes—that’s a huge structural problem that we have to fix, because if … you live in a community and the property values are very low, that means that right off the bat you have less of a chance of receiving a quality education because of where you were born and the area you live in.”

How do you address the so-called ‘cycles of poverty’?

“How do you build a person who doesn’t know any better? If I had the answer, I think I would go door to door and knock in poverty-stricken areas and say, ‘hey, you don’t have to continue to live this way.’ … I meet a lot of kids, they have not even been out of their neighborhood. … They’ve not seen what they could be or do or see outside this little box that they’re in. A lot of programs I support are programs that are willing to take kids … outside of their communities so they can see there is way more to life and, perhaps, it will help them to begin to dream and have a vision and see themselves differently than their parents and their grandparents.”

What challenges do you face in focusing colleagues’ attention on poverty?

“It’s not an easy subject. There are no simple solutions in getting it done and the real driver I think is, it costs money. … There is this one pot of money that every interest group that you could ever imagine is fighting for. They’re fighting for the same dollars, the same resources. These big businesses, they can afford … to hire hundreds of lobbyists and pay them well. They have a better chance in reaching, in getting their mission and agenda across the minds of people who make the decisions because people who are poor, they don’t have that. They don’t have the lobbyist efforts. They don’t have the group efforts. They don’t have the resources or time.”

What about society in general?

“Poverty sure isn’t sexy. It isn’t something you’re going to see on TV. It’s not a cable-driven subject to be poor. … It’s not something people are driven to watch or see or want to know about. It doesn’t really make the headlines. The only thing that reaches the headlines is the crime; the unemployment rate is talked about. The crime is discussed but the actual person living in poverty is never addressed in the media. … It’s the symptoms that are driven by poverty that make the headlines.”

How do you make sure people who live in poverty have a voice?

“I’ve been trying to educate my colleagues that it’s OK to speak up for poor people who can’t speak up for themselves. It’s hard and there isn’t a simple solution, so it’s going to take those long meetings. It’s going to take those big debates. The big businesses that do well will be able to bring more people to the table for that discussion, but … allow some of those people to be removed from the table and bring in some of the people who live in poverty and who are stricken by it. Let them represent themselves at that same table and give them a listening ear and understand. Then maybe from that, we can shape policy that will help them more.”

What advice would you give to other legislators across the country?

“Have compassion and just know there is no simple solution. We’re challenged as legislators on many issues and I think this is an issue that we should always keep in the forefront. … I don’t know that I’ve tackled any of these issues in one single year. It’s just coming back and keep bringing these issues back over and over and over until you get some good results. Even if it’s a small step, every step can add up and make a significant difference.”