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Report: 1 in 3 Illinoisans living in or near poverty

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 5:30 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 10:46 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO – One-third of Illinois residents are living in or near poverty, more than during the depths of the Great Recession, according to a new report that suggests the trend is not slowing and that state budget cuts have exacerbated the problem.

Almost 1.9 million Illinoisans, or 15 percent, live in poverty, up from 12 percent when the recession began in late 2007. An additional 2.2 million, or 18 percent, are close to the poverty level, compared with 16.2 percent in 2007, according to the report issued Wednesday by the Chicago-based Social IMPACT Research Center.

"It really is kind of shocking that a full third of the state is struggling," said Amy Terpstra, the center's associate director.

Poverty is defined as an annual income below $23,021 for a family of four. Almost half of those in poverty earn half that. Those considered low-income earn between 100 percent and 199 percent of poverty. The study is based on the U.S. Census Department's 2011 American Community Survey.

Terpstra said near-poor residents often hold low-wage jobs with too few hours and no health benefits, yet don't qualify for state or federal assistance. She said someone generally must make twice the poverty level to make ends meet without assistance, but in Illinois, that amount is higher because of the state's cost of living.

Other indicators of poverty – food stamp use and emergency food assistance – appear to support the survey.

The number of food stamp recipients increased 19 percent during the recent recession, and has increased an additional 41 percent since it ended in June 2009.

Households served by the state's emergency food program spiked from 2.27 million in fiscal year 2009 to almost 3 million in 2012, although the amount of food distributed in those years was about the same, just over 23 million pounds, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services, which distributes federal surplus commodities to food banks.

Although Illinois' unemployment rate has fallen, it remains stubbornly high at 8.7 percent for November, and many of the new jobs don't pay well, advocates said.

At the same time, steep cuts in the state's Medicaid program and to programs to prevent homelessness and treat mental illness are making the situation tougher for people already struggling to provide basic necessities, Terpstra and other advocates say. People find themselves choosing between rent and food, between paying utilities and going to the doctor.

Women, children and the disabled are among those more likely to live in poverty. But the new statistics belie stereotypes that those struggling are single parents or the unemployed, advocates say.

"One of the big things is that people have jobs, but not jobs they can raise a family on," said Pete Schaefer, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, a network of food pantries that serve 13 counties, including some of the wealthiest Chicago suburbs.

Schaefer said some food-bank users are unemployed, but many are "making $9, $10 or $11 an hour."

"There is just no end in sight to the people hurting out there," said Schaefer, adding that demand has more than doubled in the last four to five years, with food banks in his network serving a half-million individuals a year.

Illinois ranks around the middle of states when it comes to poverty and near-poverty. But advocates say the numbers still are far too high, especially when lawmakers could take steps to ease the problem, including increasing the minimum wage from $8.25 an hour. They also advocate restoring homeless prevention funding, fully implementing Medicaid expansion and creating an automatic retirement account program.

Nateka Simmons of Urbana lost her job as an activities director at a skilled nursing center last February after back surgery that required months of physical therapy. She ended up going to food banks and applying for food stamps and Medicaid to help care for her three children, 13- and 9-year-old boys and a 4-year-old girl. Her husband's $9-an-hour dollar-store job wasn't enough to cover the bills or allow them to enroll in the company's health insurance plan, Simmons said.

"I never understood before how people say they struggled. I'd say 'go to work.' But what happens when you can't work?" Simmons asked.

Last week, Simmons was hired as a driver at another long-term care facility at $9.75 an hour. Now she's waiting to find out if she made too much money in her first week to keep her food stamps, even though she's not guaranteed full-time work.

If the aid is cut, she said she must decide whether to "stay at this job or leave it because I can't afford" to pay bills and buy food. "It's a never-ending cycle of trying to get ahead."

That's a story Mike Heath hears often as executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries.

The number of families seeking help at the Carbondale charitable group's food pantry increased by almost 24 percent between fiscal year 2011 and 2012. At the same time, its soup kitchen served 22 percent more meals, and the group saw a 32 percent increase in the number of people seeking short-term help for such expenses as car payments and rent.

"It's a bad situation," Heath said. "There's no two ways about it."

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