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Local agencies struggle to keep up with state’s rising poverty rate

Michael Vargas carries box food he received Friday from The SalvatiArmy Douglas Avenue Elgin. Funds are low this year compared

Michael Vargas carries a box of food he received Friday from The Salvation Army on Douglas Avenue in Elgin. Funds are low this year compared to past years as well as donations of food, clothing and volunteers. December 7, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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By the numbers

People in poverty (does not include those considered “near poverty”)

Kane County (total population, 520,271): 64,580

DuPage County (923,222): 71,040

Kendall County (116,631): 5,973

Will County (681,545) 56,362

Child poverty rate

Kendall County — 7.2 percent

DuPage County — 11 percent

Will County — 11.4 percent

Kane County — 18.7 percent.

Average amount poor families’ incomes fell below poverty line

Kane County — $9,029

Kendall — $9,834

Will — $8,688.

DuPage — $8,369

Source: Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights

Updated: March 18, 2013 1:19AM



A few years ago, folks at the Salvation Army in Elgin had a problem. The people coming in to use the thrift store couldn’t even afford the pittance being charged for the used items sold there.

“That’s when we went to an Emergency Clothing Closet,” said case manager Lisa Ayala, where clients could pick up two sets of clothing for each person in the family at no cost.

That program change is only one anecdotal bit of evidence echoing an alarming new report that the state’s poverty rate has peaked to where one out of three Illinoisans now live in or are on the brink of poverty.

That means one in five Illinois children are living in poverty, according to the study released this week by the Social IMPACT Research Center of Chicago’s Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights. The study, based on 2011 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, declares this crisis spares no community in Illinois and is only worsening under budget cuts to programs and policies that help alleviate poverty.

The 33 percent figure is up from 25 percent of Illinois residents who lived in or near poverty in 2000. In 1990, it was 27 percent; in 1980, 20 percent.

In suburban Kane and Cook counties, the poverty/near-poverty rate is nearly a third; in DuPage, McHenry and Will counties, one out of five people live near or below the poverty line.

Multiple causes

The numbers don’t surprise Ayala, who says she takes about 15 calls a day from people requesting assistance, not only for food and clothing but utilities, medical bills and rent.

“It’s hard to keep up with the need,” she said, adding that the food pantry has seen its weekly numbers go from 140 people two years ago to 180-plus in 2012.

The forces behind this rise in poverty in a post-recession economy go beyond unemployment, according to the study, and include an inadequate living wage and lack of access to education, housing, health care and assets. Of the state’s households headed by single women, 34.3 percent live in poverty, as do 8.2 percent of senior citizens and 20.7 percent of disabled people.

According to the study, poverty also has been rising over the longer-term (up from 10.7 percent in 2000), indicating larger shifts toward an economy increasingly reliant on service-based — and therefore lower-wage — jobs.

Underemployed, lower pay

Janet Derrick describes the numbers as “staggering” but far from shocking. Derrick, executive director of Naperville CARES — which serves as a clearinghouse for those who have lost homes or jobs — says the report “formalizes what we’ve been seeing,” which includes a large segment of the population who are underemployed.

“The reality in DuPage,” says Derrick, “is that you have to make $19 an hour in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Yet we have so many making $8 — and that’s working part-time.”

It’s not just children, single moms and older workers slipping below the poverty level. In her role as associate director for Senior Services for Kane, Kendall and McHenry counties, Micki Miller has seen a significant rise in elderly residents coming through the offices in Aurora, Elgin, Yorkville and Crystal Lake.

Even those who thought they had prepared adequately for old age are struggling, she noted. More are using food pantries for the first time, as well as asking for assistance with medical needs and other basic living costs.

They often come in desperate, embarrassed and depressed because of their financial situation, she added. That’s why, in addition to helping with basic living needs, “we help them realize they did nothing wrong and are far from alone.”

‘Step backward’

The Heartland Alliance report offers recommendations such as increasing the minimum wage and affordable housing, and addresses issues of education, health and financial traps.

It calls poverty one of the most pressing social issues facing Illinois and the nation. And it also calls the trends highlighted in the report as a “step backward” in the state’s goal spelled out in its Constitution to eliminate poverty.

Ayala knows all about steps backward: She sees it not only in those who walk through the Salvation Army doors but in her own life. The one-time volunteer says her income was cut in half a couple years ago when she took over the duties as case manager after getting laid off from her job in corporate America.

“Somehow, God always provides,” she said. “We just keep going.”



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