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New Poverty Report Puts McLean County On 'Watch List'

Seth Wenig
Protesters rally for higher pay in front of a McDonald's in 2015 in New York. “Unemployment rate only takes into consideration whether someone has a job or not. It doesn't look at the quality of that job,” said Heartland Alliance's Katie Buitrago.";s:

Heartland Alliance released its 2018 Illinois Poverty Report this week, showing McLean County was placed on the "watch list" for well-being.

Editor's Note: This story has been revised. Upon further questioning of Heartland Alliance, some of their data has been revised.

Heartland Alliance uses an 8-point scale to rank counties on their well-being. Last year McLean County was given 1 point, meaning there was little risk to the well-being of residents. This year's report gave McLean 4 points, placing it on the watch list.

Heartland Director of Research Katie Buitrago said poverty alone does not take into account the area's cost of living and other indicators of quality of life, so the well-being scale was created to "paint a more comprehensive picture than the poverty rate can show alone."

Credit Heartland Alliance
Considered in the ranking is a county's high school graduation rate, teen birth rate, poverty rate, and unemployment rate.

Considered in the ranking is high school graduation rate, teen birth rate, poverty rate, and unemployment rate. Counties get a negative point if it is doing worse than the state average or if its rates are getting worse over time in those given areas, Buitrago said.

"In McLean County, it got on the watch list because it has a higher teen birth rate than the state average, a growing teen birth rate, a growing unemployment rate. . . and a growing poverty rate," Buitrago said.

1 in 8 Residents

Teen birth rates are determined by the number of births per teenager in the county out of every 1,000 teens, Buitrago said. Heartland listed McLean County's teen birth rate at 86.3.

Buitrago said poverty is not experienced the same across Illinois. According to the data, McLean County is ranked 93rd in the state for highest child poverty.

"Women, children and people of color have higher poverty rates and are really feeling this impact more," Buitrago said.

McLean County's poverty rate is 12.6 percent, according to the report, with over 20,000 living in poverty.

"McLean County is struggling with very high poverty rates. One in (eight) people in McLean County live in poverty, which is (lower) than the Illinois rate of 13 percent," Buitrago said. "McLean County's poverty rate has also gone up almost (1 percent) from the previous year, so poverty is getting worse over time."

Buitrago said calculating if a family is living in poverty means adding up the family's income and determining of that number falls below the poverty threshold for that family size. The poverty threshold for a family of four is nearly $25,000 per year.

"But this measure is very outdated and it's widely agreed to understate the degree of actual need. The federal poverty line was established in the 60s using food cost as its basis, and since then it's just updated every year for inflation," Buitrago said. "Most experts agree it takes an income of around two to three times the poverty line to pay for most families' basic expenses."

Beyond Unemployment Rate

According to the data, McLean County was also listed as the county with the 13th lowest unemployment rate in the state. Buitrago said employment is "only a small piece of the puzzle."

"Unemployment rate only takes into consideration whether someone has a job or not. It doesn't look at the quality of that job."

"Unemployment rate only takes into consideration whether someone has a job or not. It doesn't look at the quality of that job," Buitrago said. "Someone could be employed but not working enough hours to make ends meet, or their income could be very low and it doesn't put them above the poverty line."

She said unemployment rate also does not consider those with disabilities, those caring for family members, and the retired population who may have income below the poverty line.

"Looking at the poverty rate alone doesn't quite paint a picture about the extent of deprivation in an area," Buitrago said.

That's where income deficits come in. Buitrago said income deficits compares the poverty line value to the average income of people who live in poverty in that area. McLean County's income deficit is nearly $10,000.

"That means that people in poverty in McLean County are facing significant material deprivation," Buitrago said.

To lessen the poverty rate, Buitrago recommends creating an atmosphere to attract good-paying, stable jobs and removing barriers to employment by expanding local transportation and job-training opportunities.

But overall, Buitrago said to "push the state and federal government to create and maintain strong anti-poverty programs."

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