Project NOW holds conference on poverty and solutions – Quad-City Times

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Project NOW held its second-annual “Rooting out Poverty” Conference Thursday, urging communities to “chart a new course” and explore innovative ideas to end poverty. 

“What if I told you that poverty is unacceptable?,” said Dwight Ford, executive director of Project NOW. “Let’s get to work and roll up our sleeves … If the Quad-Cities starts to mobilize and stand up — tell poverty we comin’.” 

Thursday’s conference featured three core panels and a keynote speaker during lunch.

Project NOW’s second annual Poverty Conference kicks off on Thursday at the Rhythm City Casino in Davenport. The event featured panels focused on how poverty intersects with topics such as prison re-entry, housing, youth training. 

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George Guy, president of the National Association of Housing & Redevelopment Officials, gave the keynote address, titled “Creating a Pathway Out of the Housing Crisis.”

2024 Panels/panelists: 

Panel 1: Justice, “Unlocking Potential: Unleashing Possibilities: Ending Permanent Punishments, Creating a More Just Society & Safer Communities”: 

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  • Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain, executive director of Live Free Illinois.
  • Harry Pena and Shimere Love, of the Illinois Coalition to End Permanent Punishments.

Panel 2: Education & Training, “Gateway to Opportunity: Inspiring Change through Youth Career Development & Training.”

  • John Pady, chief expansion officer for the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County.
  • Rufus Greer Jr., executive director of YouthBuild Quad Cities
  • Noe Omar Martinez-Guzman, a YouthBuild student from Rock Island High School.
  • Susan Stanley, operations coordinator for the California Indian Manpower Consortium, Inc.

Panel 3: Health & Economics: “Community by Design: Innovative Approach to Investing in People & Places.”

  • Anderson Sainci, director of the Office of Shared Prosperity & Neighborhood Support. 
  • Sangeetha Rayaputi, mayor of Moline.
  • Ashley Ezzio and Michael Berger, project coordinators for Uplift Iowa.
  • Thurgood Brooks, coordinator of Rock Island’s West End Revitalization.

In his opening address, Ford cited the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which led to a 42% decrease in the nationwide poverty rate by 1973

“We have to see what they saw back then,” Ford said. “Poverty is what it is — a thief. It steals opportunity, it divides people and it separates people by race and economic status. 

To him, the first step toward “rooting out poverty” is forming relationship-based personal responsibility. 

“We have to strip this mindset that people are (in poverty) because they don’t work hard or are lazy and shiftless,” Ford said, adding someone could work overtime — and then some — and still “come up short” in the United States. 

Noe Omar Martinez-Guzman, a Rock Island High School student, speaks about his experience participating in YouthBuild Quad Cities at Project NOW’s second annual Poverty Conference on Thursday at the Rhythm City Casino in Davenport. Pictured on stage with Guzman are Rufus Greer Jr., executive director of YouthBuild Quad Cities (left) and Dwight Ford, executive director of Project NOW. 

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“…Nobody (writes) a 15-year plan for their life and says, ‘I look forward to sleeping on the street,’ or ‘I look forward to eating out of trash cans, I look forward to a life of addiction and wasting all my resources,'” he said. “What does it say about us? If we only believe that personal responsibility has everything to do with them, and not with us?” 

Along with urging the public to adopt this mindset, Ford said better public policy is another step. 

“I’m not asking you to ride on the back of a donkey or stampede on the shoulders of an elephant, I’m asking you to stand up for people that need us most,” he said. “When a policy hurts poor people, we should stand up.”

Ford passed the mic to Stormy Udell of the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies for a brief presentation on how agencies can use networking and innovation strategies to make more of an impact in their communities.

Next, attendees learned how prison education programs give formerly incarcerated individuals a chance to reach and expand their potential, hearing first-hand from Augustana College students T.Y. Stone and David Staples.

The two spoke about their transition from prison back into their home communities and Augie’s campus. Both are members of the first Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP) cohort.

As previously reported, APEP offers a full-time bachelor’s degree program to prisoners in the East Moline Correctional Center. The program currently enrolls 29 students and offers majors in communications or American studies, taught on-site by 30 Augie faculty members.

Stone and Staples spoke about the “transformative power” education had throughout their journeys, both in and out of prison.

Staples, now 60, spent 29 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Before he was exonerated with help from the Illinois Innocence Project — a statewide nonprofit seeking justice for wrongly incarcerated people — Staples said APEP gave him hope.

Executive Director Sharon Varallo said APEP is seeking sponsorships for the following majors/minors: economics, business, public health and data analytics.

She said prison education is “good by every metric,” noting reduced rates of recidivism, family reunification and children’s education/stability; improved mental health and skilled labor force support.

Rufus Greer Jr., executive director of YouthBuild Quad Cities, speaks during the Education & Training panel during Project NOW’s second annual Poverty Conference on Thursday at the Rhythm City Casino in Davenport. Dwight Ford, executive director of Project NOW, is seated to his right. 

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Alexis Richie, an Illinois coordinator for the Supportive Housing Providers Association, initially attended Thursday’s conference to learn about housing affordability but she had personal insight on other items as well.

Her brother spent 25 years incarcerated, she told the Quad-City Times/Dispatch-Argus, so hearing similar stories from Thursday’s panelists gave her a sense of hope. 

“When he came home, every door you could think of was being shut because he was a convicted felon,” Richie said. “The cycle of poverty in Black and brown communities is so overwhelming. We have too many barriers and not enough resources and solutions to help these individuals give back to society in a productive manner.”

She hopes housing industry leaders — such as landlords, developers and mortgage brokers — who attended Thursday’s conference feel inspired to start making affordable housing more accessible to those with felony convictions. 

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Richie said. “My hope is that (action) will happen sooner rather than later.” 

Rock Island Alderman Dylan Parker, Ward 5, plans to use Thursday’s conference to gauge how the city can improve. 

“Local government is where the rubber hits the road, right? (…) So it’s important to understand both what resources are available to local governments and (community) needs,” he said. “Rock Island is arguably the poorest of Quad-Cities communities … so unfortunately, I see this pretty frequently. I came here not to be educated as to the need, (rather) to identify what can be done.” 

Parker said the Justice panel made him reflect on Rock Island’s hiring practices for formerly incarcerated applicants, along with other types of programs the city could implement. 

“We need to be doing more in Rock Island to address below the hill neighborhoods, rather than continuing to push them westward and hoping, I don’t know, they fall off into the river or something,” he said. “Redlining existed in Rock Island half a century ago, and that continues to reverberate now … I’m here today to figure out how to create solutions to finally break these systems.”

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of H.R. 7024, a bill that would expand eligibility for the child tax credit. Lawmakers approved the measure late Wednesday by a 357-70 margin, with Republicans voting in favor by a 169-47 margin and Democrats approving it by a 188-23 ledger. The bill now goes to the Senate, but its future in the chamber remains uncertain. Currently, households earning $200,000 ($400,000 for couples) with children ages 16 and under are generally eligible for the full $2,000 amount, but only $1,600 of that amount is considered refundable. The lawmakers’ plan would include a phased increase to the refundable portion of the child tax credit for 2023, 2024 and 2025. Under the bill, the refundable portion of the child tax credit would increase to $1,800 for tax year 2023, $1,900 for 2024 and $2,000 for 2025.SEE MORE: White House to propose Medicare prices for 10 popular drugsIt would adjust the tax credit for inflation starting in 2024. It would also provide flexibility for taxpayers to use either current- or prior-year income to calculate the child tax credit in 2024 or 2025.The bill also has other provisions, including increasing the amount of interest that businesses can deduct as an expense. It also would end employers’ ability to claim the employee retention tax credit after January 31, 2024. The COVID-era provision was effective for tax years 2020 and 2021, but current law gives employers until April 15, 2025 to amend their payroll tax returns. Other provisions include additional tax relief for victims of natural disasters and funds for low-income housing credits. Providing families additional funds through the child tax credit has been discussed in recent years. In 2023, President Joe Biden proposed raising the child tax credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child for children 6 years old and above, and to $3,600 per child for children under 6. Parents received an expanded child tax credit in 2021 as part of pandemic relief, but the credit lapsed despite efforts among Democrats. SEE MORE: Those confusing IRS notices may soon make sense to taxpayers like youThe lawmakers’ proposal doesn’t go as far as President Biden’s plan, but proponents say it will reduce the number of children in poverty. According to an analysis of the plan by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 50% of children who reside in eligible households live in households that would gain $630 or more from this legislation. About 25% of children who reside in eligible households live with families that would gain $1,400 or more.Expanded child tax credits, along with other government assistance programs provided during the COVID-19 pandemic, were credited with reducing the childhood poverty rate by nearly half. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the child tax credit kept 5.3 million people out of poverty in 2021. In 2022, with the child tax credit returning to its normal levels, it kept 2.4 million people out of poverty. Essentially, by expanding the child tax credit, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates nearly 3 million additional Americans were kept out of poverty in 2021.The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates the new bill would lift about 500,000 American children out of poverty. 

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