Working to end the cycles of poverty and debt

In January 2018, POWER-PAC Illinois leaders released a powerful and compelling up-close look at debt and how debt keeps low-income families stuck, in the report “Stopping the Debt Spiral.”  The parent leaders interviewed 300 other parents across the state about their financial situation, the types of debt they have and the impact of that debt.  More than half the families live on less than $15,000 per year in family income and debt is a major factor in holding them back!


Parents are advancing their economic justice recommendations in Chicago and throughout Illinois.

  • In Chicago, parent leaders are organizing for the creation of a Chicago Financial Justice Initiative, inspired by the San Francisco City Treasurer Office’s Financial Justice Project. They are pushing the City of Chicago policymakers to assess all current City policies related to fines and fees to determine disparate impact on low-income and families of color and to adjust policies as needed to create a more proportionate impact on Chicago families.  They also are working to change policies that prevent people with debt to the City from being employed by the City.  Multiple parent leaders have been denied jobs with the City because of parking ticket debt.
  • Outside of Chicago, parent leaders are taking on issues that hit them hard financially:
    • In East St. Louis, parents are organizing to end fines and fees levied against public housing residents for having an air conditioning unit or a washer and dryer, as these are considered “luxuries” by the Housing Authority.
    • In Aurora and Elgin, parents are holding hospitals accountable to providing “charity care” as many people are without insurance and have high medical bills.
  • And statewide, POWER-PAC Illinois leaders are pushing back against unscrupulous predatory utility companies; working to bring more solar options to low-income communities in Illinois; and partnering with the Illinois Attorney General to rein in student loan costs, especially predatory for-profit college practices.

POWER-PAC began this campaign in 2009 after the Great Recession hit their families particularly hard. Since then, parents have partnered with advocacy organizations in the Illinois Asset Building Group (IABG) to win major legislative and administrative changes through their Stepping Out of Poverty Campaign.

POWER-PAC is advocating for Universal Children’s Savings Accounts, which would be opened for each child in Illinois upon their birth and to which families can contribute over the years. When the child turns 18, they can then use the account for educational purposes. Studies show that children who have savings accounts have increased hopes and aspirations for going to college. POWER-PAC parents think education is critical in breaking the cycle of poverty and currently piloting Children’s Savings Accounts in Evanston, Illinois.

With partners, parents passed legislation on reforming the use of payroll cards, eliminating fees associated with the cards that nickel-and-dime families.  They successfully helped to increase the minimum wage in Chicago and eliminated asset limits for families receiving TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) so that families can actually save money for their futures.  And nationally, they are working to raise consciousness and advocate for policies that end the racial and gender wealth gaps, as members of the “Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap” coalition and with the Aspen Institute’s Expanding Prosperity Impact Collaborative (EPIC).


Stepping Out of Poverty Campaign in the News

“Victims of Domestic Violence, ID Theft Could Get a Break on City Debt”  – Chicago Sun Times, October 2018

“Chicago Alderman Proposes Reining in Ticket Penalties that Drove Thousands of Black Motorists into Debt  – ProPublica, October 2018

“What San Francisco’s Reform of Fines and Fees Can Teach Chicago”  – WBEZ, November 2018

“Alternative energy scams hit poor blacks and Latinos the hardest, complaints show”  – The Chicago Reporter, November 2018

“Governor Quinn signs payroll cards bill into law”



  • More than 50% of those that POWER-PAC interviewed in 300 parent-to-parent interviews across the state of Illinois, have an income of less than $15,000 annually.
  • 43% of African-American female-headed households and 46% of Latina-headed households live in poverty.
  • African-Americans and Latino families own less than a dime of wealth for every dollar white families own.
  • 15% of families live below the poverty line and 27% do not have the assets to survive financially for three months if faced with an emergency.
  • Children are six times more likely to attend college if they know someone is saving for their future and supporting their dreams.
  • A college degree gives a young person more opportunities to build wealth over a lifetime, yet only 3% of Chicago City College students ever receive any college credits and overall 40% of City College students fail.


Recommendations from Stopping the Debt Spiral report.

Fees and Fines Keep Us Trapped:

  • Implement a Financial Justice Scan at all levels of government in Illinois to ensure that public fees and fines do NOT have a disparate impact on our state’s low-income residents and residents of color.
  • Legislate governments, including the court systems, so that they cannot impose unwieldy fees or debt collection procedures in order to fund their budgets on the backs of families least able to pay.
  • Limit Driver License suspensions to actual traffic violations only.
  • Protect savings from debt collection, particularly college and retirement savings accounts.
  • Strengthen laws prohibiting the use of credit reports/scores in hiring.
  • Nationally, fortify the deferral Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and closely regulate all predatory lending.

Utility Debt That Keeps Us in the Cold:

  • Implement Lifeline Rates for utility costs, based on a family’s actual income, so that they’re charged electric and gas rates based on their ability to pay.
  • Spread the word about available debt reduction, utility assistance and shut-off prevention programs for low-income consumers.
  • Regulate scam artists and predatory companies that run rampant in this market.
  • Implement Community Solar in Illinois with low-income families at the table and ensure that cost savings go to families that most need them.

Medical Debt Weighs Our Families Down:

  • Expand Illinois’ Charity Care and ensure that all patients at nonprofit hospitals and medical centers are told of their rights to assistance and how to access it.
  • Ensure that access to the program is available in Spanish, family-friendly, transparent, and unimposing.
  • Expand other free and low cost options for the uninsured and undocumented.
  • Nationally, maintain the Affordable Care Act and fund CHIP (the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program).

Highlights and Victories

Since the launch of the campaign in 2009, POWER-PAC Illinois, with its advocacy partners, has had many victories:

  • In 2010, parents won the creation of a Legislative Task Force to explore Children’s Savings Accounts (CSA) in Illinois and in 2017, in Evanston, partnered with local organizations to pilot a CSA program.
  • In 2013, parents helped usher in new legislation to eliminate asset limitations in Illinois’ Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.
  • POWER-PAC leaders persuaded the Illinois Comptroller to allow ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Numbers—used by undocumented immigrants) to open College 529 Savings accounts in Illinois and got the City of Chicago and 10 local banks to provide free or affordable banking services for low-income and immigrant families.
  • In 2017, parent leaders helped win the Illinois Student Bill of Rights to address predatory policies of the student loan servicing industry and ensure that student borrowers and their families receive clear and transparent information about their loan and payment options.
  • Parents also persuaded the City of Chicago to make their policy regarding debt to the City and employment more clear on the City’s website.
  • In October 2018, parents worked with Alderman Gilberto Villegas to introduce an Ordinance that calls on the City to reduce the burden of exorbitant fines and fees added on top of parking tickets and other forms of municipal debt for Chicago residents that are survivors of domestic violence, victims of identify fraud and people experiencing financial hardship.
  • In December 2018, with City Clerk Anna Valencia, the Chicago Fees, Fines & Access Collaborative was launched of which POWER-PAC is a member. The Collaborative will spend six months reviewing City policies that impose harsh fines and fees on Chicagoans and make recommendations for how to reform them to make fines and fees have a more proportional affect on Chicago residents.