The poverty rate has inched slightly lower in Illinois but still remains well above the rate that existed before the Great Recession began in 2008.
Updated statistics from Chicago-based Heartland Alliance show the overall number of Illinois residents living below the poverty line decreased to 13 percent in 2016 from 13.8 percent in 2010. The pre-recession poverty rate was 10.7 percent in 2000.
“That means that Illinois has not rebounded yet from the recession,” said Katie Buitrago, director of Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center. The center studies poverty throughout the Midwest.
“One thing unique about Illinois compared to other states in the country was the two-year budget crisis we had where we deeply under-invested in the human services crucial to moving people out of poverty,” Buitrago said on GLT's Sound Ideas.
The poverty rate, according to the Heartland Alliance:
“Organizations closed their doors, or had to cut their services, and that is most likely contributing to our poverty rate that hasn’t fully bounced back,” she added.
The study found that approximately four million people—or nearly a third of the state—are considered low income or living in poverty. Hardest hit are people of color, women and children, Buitrago said.
African-American women experience poverty at rates that are 3.5 times higher than white men, and Latina women have a rate that is 2.5 times higher. Poverty among black men is 3.2 times higher than for white men, the analysis showed.
Buitrago said Illinois’ actual poverty rate is likely even higher. She said organizations like hers use a poverty measurement based on federal Census Bureau guidelines.
“It is based on the cost of food in the 1970s, multiplied by three, and adjusted for inflation over the years. It doesn’t take into account the cost of living, the cost of housing or of child care. So it is a fairly conservative estimate of need," Buitrago said.
By the federal standard, a family of three earning $18,000 to $19,000 a year is considered to be living in poverty.
By contrast, when the actual cost of living is taken into account, a family of three living in McLean County needs to earn about $60,000 a year to make ends meet, Buitrago said.
“That is three times what the poverty line is,” she added.
According to the federal standard, a family of three earning $10,000 a year or less is considered to be living in “extreme poverty.”
Buitrago said the federal War on Poverty and Civil Rights gains of the 1960s helped minorities somewhat.
However, “people in Illinois and throughout the country still face systemic racism and discrimination that affects their ability to rise out of poverty,” Buitrago said.
“For generations, white people in this country were able to pursue educational opportunities, start businesses, buy property, and pass that wealth to their children,” she said. People of color were often legally barred from doing the same, Buitrago added.
“That still affects people’s wellbeing today,” she said.
Women experience higher poverty rates in part because of “discrimination in the workplace,” Buitrago said.
“As we’ve seen with the #MeToo movement, women aren’t facing the same fair employment opportunities as men. Women are also more likely to be single parents and generally have less wealth than men do,” she added.
Poverty By Legislative District
The Heartland Alliance analysis gives a snapshot of Illinois counties by legislative districts.
She said one of the main causes of poverty in those two districts is the cost of rental housing.
Nearly 6,779 households in the districts are “severely rent-burdened,” Buitrago said—paying more than half their income for housing.
“That leaves little money left over for food, child care, transportation,” Buitrago said. “These are people really struggling to make ends meet.”
Statewide, about 45 percent of residents have an arrest record, which can adversely affect earning power. Some jobs that require state licenses are off limits to ex-offenders, and many landlords refuse to rent to people with criminal records, Buitrago said.
“Contrary to popular perceptions,” a large number of Illinois’ poor do work, Buitrago said.
“The minimum wage can’t support people,” she added.
Buitrago said McLean County ranks in the middle among counties in terms of its poverty rate. Buitrago estimated a living wage in McLean County would need to be $28 an hour.
“A significant number of families earn less than that,” she said. Additionally a large number of the working poor do not receive health benefits and must take unpaid sick leave from their jobs.
“It used to be easier to find jobs that have good benefits. That is just not available anymore,” Buitrago said.
Heartland Alliance advocates a number of public policy changes.
“One thing we are focused on is improving job quality—increase the minimum wage and require paid sick and family leave. These are crucial,” Buitrago said.
Heartland Alliance also supports expanding publicly subsidized jobs, “so anyone able and willing to work is able to do so,” she added.
“We also support expanding job training and better affordable housing opportunities. We need quality health care for all, and we need to support criminal justice reform to ensure we have fair and equal law enforcement,” Buitrago said.
Those goals won't be easy to achieve, given the state’s current budget crisis and past fiscal battles. Buitrago said her organization will keep pressing for those outcomes.
“We are playing the long game here. The budget crisis has been devastating, but we don’t want to lose vision of the kind of society we want to live in,” she said.
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