Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday June 18th, 2014, 5:26pm

Most Illinois Congressional Members Get Passing Grades On National Poverty Scorecard

Six Democratic members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation had a perfect voting record in 2013 on legislation important to people living in poverty, according to a new scorecard and report published by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

Meanwhile, no Republican Congressmen from Illinois earned a grade higher than a 'D' on the center's 2013 Poverty Scorecard, which looked at the voting record of every U.S. senator and representative on poverty-related issues during the last calendar year. The scores were tabulated based on 18 votes taken in the House and Senate on legislation covering a variety of subject areas including budget and tax, food and nutrition, health care, immigrants, cash assistance, domestic violence, education and the workforce, to name a few.

Although the Illinois Congressional Delegation as a whole averaged a 'B' on poverty issues, the Shriver Center's report noted that Congress overall found "little compromise on legislative initiatives affecting the poor in 2013."

“Fifty years after the launch of the War on Poverty, the promise of ending poverty in America remains unrealized,” said Dan Lesser, the Shriver Center's director of economic justice. “Today, when we examine how Congress is addressing the poverty crisis, we too often find partisan gridlock and stubborn inaction.”

The national poverty rate is 15 percent, with more than 46 million Americans, including 16 million children, living below the federal poverty level. The government defined the poverty threshold last year as an annual income of $23,550 for a family of four. Illinois has a poverty rate of 14.7 percent, impacting some 1.85 million people, according to the most recent 2012 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The House members from Illinois who earned a perfect 100 percent on the Shriver Center's 7th annual poverty scorecard are U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush (D-1), Luis Gutierrez (D-4), Mike Quigley (D-5), Danny Davis (D-7), Tammy Duckworth (D-8), and Bill Foster (D-11).

“I chose to serve in public office because I wanted to give back to my community and my country, so I am proud to have a strong voting record in support of issues impacting those most in need," Foster said in a statement to Progress Illinois. "My priority is always to support policies which strengthen and grow the middle class in Illinois.”

Duckworth said she commends "organizations like the Shriver Center on their advocacy work regarding poverty in our great nation."

"It is deplorable to me that a country such as ours has kids and seniors alike that go to sleep hungry every night, and adults that have to choose between buying medicine or food," the congresswoman said. "This must change, and raising awareness on the issue is the first step.”

U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly (D-IL,2), Daniel Lipinski (D-IL, 3), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9), Brad Schneider (D-IL,10), and Bill Enyart (D-IL,12) scored slightly less than 100 percent, but still received an 'A'.

The remaining Democratic Illinois representative, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (17), earned a 'B' in part because she voted 'no' on an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have restored $20.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. Among other reasons, Bustos' score took a hit because she voted in favor of H.R. 2668, which looked to delay the Affordable Care Act's individual health insurance mandate until 2015.

Out of the six Republican House members from Illinois, Reps. Peter Roskam (6), John Shimkus (15), Adam Kinzinger (16) and Aaron Schock (18) received a 'D' on the poverty scorecard. Reps. Rodney Davis (R-13) and Randy Hultgren (R-14) both earned an 'F' with scores of 17 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

All Illinois GOP representatives voted for H.R. 890, which would prohibit state flexibility in administering Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work programs. The measure passed in the House back in March of 2013.

Another bill every Republican from Illinois in the lower chamber voted for is H.R. 803, or the SKILLS Act. The legislation, which the GOP-led House approved in March of 2013, looked to amend the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 with revised requirements and appropriations. The measure would also "reduce assistance to low-income adults, veterans, adults with literacy and English language needs, and those with disabilities," according to the poverty report.

In the upper chamber, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) received a score of 94 percent, or an 'A', while U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) earned a 'D' with 28 percent. Kirk got a 'D' in part because he voted for measures that sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act and permanently eliminate the federal estate tax, the latter of which "would exacerbate income inequality and significantly reduce the revenue available to fund anti-poverty programs," the report reads. The Senate ultimately rejected both pieces of legislation.

Durbin's score was knocked down to 94 percent because he voted 'no' on an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have restored all funding slashed from SNAP. The Senate shot down that amendment in May of 2013 by a 26-70 vote.

The scorecard showed congressional delegations from states with high poverty rates were more likely to have a poor score on poverty-related legislation than delegations from states with low poverty rates.

For example, 15 of the 20 state congressional delegations with grades of 'D, F, or F-' have poverty rates above the national average of 15 percent, such as Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Of the 11 state congressional delegations with 'A+ or A' grades, eight have poverty rates below the national average, including Connecticut, Maryland and Vermont, to name a few.

The Shriver Center's scorecard also highlights the "deep divide" in Congress on poverty issues.

"The overwhelming majority of senators (97 percent) and representatives (95 percent) were graded at one extreme (A+, A) or the other (D, F, F-)," the report reads.

David Lloyd, director of the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children, which was not involved with the scorecard, said the disparity in scores "shows how difficult it is for Congress to reach compromises that actually reduce poverty."

"In the past, our country has really made an effort to reduce poverty and to help people who are struggling," he said. "Unfortunately, it certainly doesn't seem like it's much of a priority right now."

Lloyd made a point to stress that poverty is a nonpartisan issue.

"We think all members of Congress should make this a priority regardless of what party they belong to," he said.

Immigration reform remains one of the key anti-poverty measures Congress needs to take action on, Lloyd said. Also, Congress last year allowed much of the automatic federal spending cuts, or the sequester, to remain in place. There are a "whole bunch of budget and tax issues that Congress has not addressed, and sequestration is just one aspect of that," Lloyd said.

Congress did, however, take some steps in the right direction last year, according to the report. The legislative body reauthorized two crucial anti-poverty programs — SNAP as part of the Farm Bill and the Violence Against Women Act, which provides assistance to survivors of sexual and domestic abuse. Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was one of the 18 votes used to score members of Congress. Hultgren and Roskam were the only two members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation who voted against its reauthorization.

Regarding SNAP, Lloyd noted that "some of the worst ideas of how to basically make it more difficult for people to get food assistance were fortunately batted back." However, he stressed that "those ideas still got a lot of traction, especially in the House."

Federal lawmakers did reach an agreement on a two-year budget that spared human services programs from deep budget cuts. While the two-year budget did alleviate "some of the worst aspects of sequestration," Congress only "decreased the harm slightly that they had caused in previous years," Lloyd noted.

Notably, a number of bills and amendments introduced last year that would have hurt people living in poverty were ultimately quashed.

The defeated bills and amendments "would have denied SNAP benefits to persons not working at least 20 hours per week, made it more difficult for workers to obtain overtime pay, and infringed on voting rights," the report reads. "Other bills would have cut funding to an array of programs that serve low-income people. Most significantly, several assaults on the Affordable Care Act, the most significant anti-poverty legislation to have passed since the war on poverty, were turned back."

The Shriver Center's poverty scorecard serves as a helpful tool for holding lawmakers accountable and "clarifying how far we have to go" to make progress on poverty-related matters, Lloyd said.

"It's a very important report and hopefully [it] will generate more momentum behind really addressing the very high poverty rate and the millions of Americans who are living in poverty, even several years after the recession has ended," he said.

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