Twelve Little Letters, Two Short Words, One Big Problem

Published Jan 8, 2012

By: Abby Citrin

Drum roll please! Asset poverty. (Gasp!) Three and a half months ago, I could have dissected these words and told you what each one meant individually because as a linguist, that is what I was trained to do. Knowing myself, I would have looked each word up in a dictionary (or on and produced a dry, unemotionally affected definition that sounded something like this: “insufficiency” of “a useful and desirable thing of value.” That pretty much sounds like I am describing poverty in general. So what is asset poverty? What makes it so hard to cope with? Why should we care?

First off, an asset is anything of value that you own. This can be a savings account, a car, a house, money in the stock market, or even a college education. Asset poverty is a dearth of assets. It means that in the unexpected event that the primary income earner of a household loses their income, that household would be unable to support itself for three months or less. In Illinois there is a 1 in 3 chance that a family is asset poor. With both the unemployment rate and length of time it takes people to find a job rising, lack of assets is a tough reality for many Illinoisans. Often times, people who have few or no assets also have debt to repay and families to support. The truth is, there’s no quick fix to running out of money.

A large portion of my job at Heartland Alliance is devoted to being a case manager for twenty-two participants and leading groups on financial education. My ultimate goal is to try to increase my participants’ knowledge and skills relating to savings and money management so that in the event that their financial situation changes, they will be more prepared. Given the high frequency at which asset poverty occurs in Illinois, even what I am doing is not enough; the number of people in poverty just keeps growing. The 2011 Report on Illinois Poverty issued by Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center this December, clearly shows that my job won’t be getting easier, and my participant base may very well increase.

Since I started working in asset building, I not only know how to define asset poverty, but I grapple to understand it every day with my participants. All I can do share the resources that I have with my participants and work with them to achieve better understanding of personal finances. I can only hope to help my participants set up some kind of safety net that can help them to stay afloat in tough economic times. This isn’t something that will happen instantly, but hopefully, throughout the rest of my year, my knowledge base and resources will grow so that I can do my part to fight asset poverty in the greater Chicago area. As it says in Perkei Avot, “It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, neither are you free to neglect it.”

Abby Citrin is from Rye Brook, NY and attended Macalester College. She is an Asset Building Program Aide at Heartland Alliance, which helps people living in poverty or danger improve their lives and realize their human rights.

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