One in three Illinois residents in or near poverty, according to Heartland Alliance report

January 16, 2013

The Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center released a report today that suggest nearly a third of Illinois residents live in or near poverty.

Amy Terpstra has worked on the annual report for the Heartland Alliance for years. She sees poverty statistics all the time. But this year, she says, even she was shocked.

The study, done by the Heartland Alliances Social Impact Research Center, revealed that one in three Illinois residents are in poverty, or very close to falling into poverty.

Terpstra says that the recession and high unemployment rates play a role. But the study suggests that the rising poverty problem started even before the financial crisis and has to do with the long-term growth of low-wage jobs.

“You can work full-time, year round and still fall below the poverty line,” Terpstra said.

In fact, 100,000 residents in Illinois do just that: live below the poverty line despite full-time labor. The Federal poverty line is 19,090 for a family of three.

But that doesn’t even paint the full picture, according to Terpstra. She says when you consider the actual cost of living in Illinois, some families above the poverty line also have trouble making ends meet. That’s why the study also measures near-poverty (up to twice the Federal poverty line.)

Poverty in the Suburbs

The study explored who is most likely to be in poverty. 

Many of the findings aren’t new. Women, minorities, children, and the elderly are all at risk of being poor. But there is also a surprising growth of poverty in the suburbs.

In fact, there wasn’t a single Chicago suburb that didn’t have at least a 20 percent rate of poverty.

Suburban poverty presents its own challenges. Take the example of  Kathy Kirwin in Dupage County. Kirwin’s 55 and works through a temp agency.  Right now, she works a mailroom job. But it’s not enough.

“I just became homeless in May of 2012 and started living in my car in August,” Kirwin said.

In the suburbs, the distance between social service agencies can be far. Kerwin says she has trouble getting to shelters.

“It’s like, I got two quarters of a tank. Is that going to be enough to do all the things I need to do to get to work everyday,” Kirwin said. 

“Can I go take a shower? Can I go to the food pantries?”

Currently she has a membership to a 24-hour gym. That allows her to shower when she can’t get into a shelter, and find warmth when temperatures dip low.

Looking towards solutions

In addition to painting a picture of poverty, the study also suggests possible solutions, like raising the minimum wage.

Despite the perception that low-wage work is usually held by teenagers, the study revealed that 80 percent of people working minimum wage jobs are over age 20.

Another key suggestion was better access to housing.

Jacqueline Pierro is a single mother, full-time student, and holds down several part time jobs.

“If it weren’t for used clothing and food banks, we wouldn’t survive,” she said. 

Pierro says her income would barely cover rent, but recently she received Section 8 housing after two years on the waiting list.

“That was like winning the lottery, because it’s so hard to get,” Pierro said.

The day she got Section 8 housing was the day Pierro says she signed up for college.

Another solution the study suggests is allowing poor families to build up savings. Currently, you cannot have assets if you want to receive most public benefits. Pierro says she could support herself better if she could build a small savings for unexpected bills that she and her child often face.

“You basically have to sell off the foundation of your life to get help, and you can’t rebuild that foundation because if you do you are automatically kicked off with whatever you do have,” Pierro said.