State of the poor

New report shows Illinois poverty rate leads the Midwest

More than one in four people barely make ends meet in Illinois — a state where the poverty rate for adults and children is the highest in the Midwest, according to the 2006 Report on Illinois Poverty released today, Feb. 2, by the Heartland Alliance in Chicago. With a median household income of $45,787, the Land of Lincoln ranks third of eight Midwest states but worst in poverty and 15 other key indicators, including job loss, housing affordability, and educational spending. The new report assembles the latest statistics from federal agencies and public think tanks to paint a picture of the economic health of the state’s 12 million residents. Several central-Illinois counties, including Christian, Morgan, Macon, and Montgomery, failed to get a passing grade in well-being measures spanning poverty, teen pregnancy, high-school graduation rate, and unemployment. However, the report identifies a total of 39 counties on this year’s watch list, down from 58 in the fall, when Illinois Times last covered poverty trends in the state [Joan Villa, “Slim pickings,” Oct. 27]. Nearly 12.5 percent of Illinois residents live below the federal poverty level of $19,350 for a family of four, and some 29 percent — or 3.66 million — struggle to pay the bills on twice that income, which the report calls “near poverty.” But the actual statistics fail to show just how precarious life can be for the more than 1.5 million families, seniors, and the disabled or unemployed who face rising costs for heating, housing, and health care, explains Amy Rynell, director of the Mid-America Institute on Poverty of the Heartland Alliance. In the same period that median income increased by 14 percent, rents jumped 23.7 percent and home prices skyrocketed 32.7 percent, she says. Heating costs climbed more than 28 percent between 2000 and 2004 and are estimated to reach new heights this year. The strain is reflected in the number of payday-loan stores, which now outnumber state-chartered banks, the report says. Bankruptcy filings have doubled in the last 10 years, with half the result of medical bills. Low- and middle-income households with credit cards carry an average debt of $8,650, and 70 percent of those report using credit as a safety net to cover basic bills ranging from medicines and health care to car and home repairs. Every day, those earning minimum wage or stuck on fixed incomes make difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources. “What we’re seeing in rural areas is, the population is aging but so is the housing, and one of the struggles they’re facing is that the housing is deteriorating around them and they can’t afford to keep it up,” Rynell says. But most families need more than an official poverty threshold to meet basic expenses or to be protected from homelessness, and budgets for state programs that temporarily step in to pay rent, mortgages, or utilities are pressured by cuts. “We’re continuing to see growing need,” Rynell insists. “Funding for human-services programs has gone down while the families need it more.” Many families are entrenched in poverty because of low-paying jobs or limited educational opportunities. Although 12.4 percent of state residents are income-poor, the report says that 20.7 percent have few or no assets, such as homes, savings accounts, retirement accounts, businesses, or college degree that can help build stability and protect against hardship. The report cites the Economic Policy Institute’s estimate that a family of four needs a minimum of $36,408 for basic living expenses in rural Illinois and $43,704 in Chicago.

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