story and photographs by Robert Loerzel
In some pockets of Illinois, where one in every three people live in poverty or close to it, the need is visible in the landscape: empty lots where buildings once stood in Cairo; abandoned houses marked with X’s in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood; families living in ramshackle trailers in Kankakee County’s Pembroke Township.
In other places, poverty is, if not quite invisible, harder to notice at first glance. Chicago’s suburbs include middle-class towns and wealthy enclaves, but they’re also home to about 630,000 people who fall below the federal poverty line. In 2011, for the first time, the suburbs had as many poor people as Chicago.
“The recession totally exacerbated poverty, in the state and the nation,” says Amy Terpstra, associate director of the Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center, which analyzes poverty data. “The new data show that it might have started to level off, but it hasn’t gone down significantly yet.” She blames “a completely anemic recovery.”
No geographic area or racial group in Illinois is immune from economic hardship, but poverty disproportionately affects minorities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, 32 percent of African-Americans and 21.4 percent of Hispanics in Illinois were below the poverty line, compared with 9.2 percent of whites. But the whites are the majority in Illinois, so the state has more poor whites (about 726,000) than poor blacks (about 568,000).
Few places are in more desperate need of a recovery than East St. Louis, where four out of 10 residents — and six out of every 10 children — are poor.
“I can recall when we had stable neighborhoods,” says Percy Dace, 63, vice president at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, which provides social services in East St. Louis. “In the ’60s, our parents were able to work — not high-paying jobs, but enough to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.”
But the city’s asphalt, steel, aluminum and meatpacking factories shut down in the 1950s and ’60s. White families fled. Falling tax revenue hampered local government. The population plunged from 82,000 in 1950 to less than a third of that today, leaving a city that is 97 percent African-American.
By some calculations, East St. Louis is the nation’s most dangerous city. If you lived in East St. Louis in 2012, your odds of being the victim of a violent crime were 1 in 20. That’s nearly twice as bad as the rate in Flint, Mich., which was No. 1 on the list of violent U.S. cities larger than 100,000 people.
Khalilah January, a 33-year-old unemployed mother of seven children who came to Dace’s organization for help paying her gas bill and buying diapers, says she feels blessed that she hasn’t been the victim of violence. In her eyes, the connection between poverty and crime in East St. Louis is clear. “That’s why a lot of men and women are killing each other,” she says.
Joe Hubbard, 70, an East St. Louis native who recently retired as director of Catholic Urban Programs, sounds heartbroken as he describes his work overseeing burials at local cemeteries. “I’ve buried 30 babies … because they didn’t get prenatal care,” he says. “I dealt with a mother who threw her baby out the window. Nobody came except me and the priest, to say a prayer.”
Classie Poe, 33, a single mother with four children, came to the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House for parenting classes two years ago. Since then, she’s become a nursing assistant and landed a job in St. Louis, but she says it’s a struggle to support her family on $9.50 an hour.
“It’s so difficult to get a job,” she says, noting that East St. Louis doesn’t even have many fast-food restaurants. “If you don’t have a solid foundation, you’re going to be turning your wheels. You’re still under poverty.”
There are a few signs of life amid East St. Louis’ pothole-scarred streets: the tootle of commuter trains running on the MetroLink light rail system; the Casino Queen, open since 1990; and a corner with several active businesses where President Bill Clinton visited in 1999 to proclaim the opening of a Walgreens.
But Dace says the city needs much more. “We need something large-scale — to get commitments from employers,” he says. “Instead, we take a piecemeal approach.”
In 2012, about 1.85 million Illinoisans (or 14.7 percent) were below the poverty level set by the federal government, which was $11,170 for a single individual or $19,090 for a family of three.
It takes a lot more than that for most people to make ends meet.
“In most places in Illinois, it takes at least twice the poverty line to meet your basic needs without needing any form of assistance,” Terpstra says. “In the Chicago region, you need more like three times the federal poverty line.”
So it’s also important to count people above the poverty line who make less than 200 percent of that number. In 2012, about 2.2 million Illinoisans fell into this “low income” category.
About 640,000 Chicagoans — almost a quarter of the city — were poor in 2012. An additional 570,000 were low-income.
But poverty rates vary considerably across Chicago’s 77 community areas. In 10 of those neighborhoods on the North Side, 83.2 percent of residents are white — and only 6.3 percent are poor. Meanwhile, on the South Side and West Side, in the city’s 10 most impoverished neighborhoods, 96.8 percent of the residents are black — and 43.5 percent are poor.
Englewood and West Englewood (collectively known as Greater Englewood) are two of those poor neighborhoods. The population there is less than half of what it used to be back in 1940. Notorious for its high murder rate, the area was hit hard by the collapse of the housing market.
“The property values were going up, so people bought a lot, and then they just abandoned the homes,” Englewood resident Asiaha Butler says. “Most of the investors here don’t live in the community, so they couldn’t care less if their home is vacant or boarded up.”
Several years ago, when someone fired a bullet into Butler’s porch, she and her husband thought about leaving Englewood. Instead, they decided to stay and get more involved. Or as she puts it: “To be the solution and not wait on Superman to come and save us.”
Butler, 37, owns three small apartment buildings in Englewood, and she’s studying for a master’s degree in inner city studies. (Only 5.6 percent of her neighbors have a bachelor’s degree.) She’s a leader of RAGE, or Resident Association of Greater Englewood, which urges neighbors to improve their blocks and watch out for crime.
“Talk to the young people,” Butler says she tells residents. “Get the young people working on your block. Let them get the leaves up. Let them shovel your snow.”
In September, Whole Foods announced plans to open an Englewood store in 2016, part of a project seeking $10 million in tax-increment financing from the city. “This store will not only provide important resources, but it will also create jobs and spur economic growth — a true win-win,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a prepared statement.
While Butler criticizes the city and Whole Foods for announcing the plan before getting input from local residents, she hopes the grocery will spark economic activity and bring better food choices to Englewood, which has been labeled a “food desert.”
In Chicago, poverty is concentrated in blighted areas, but poor suburbanites are scattered throughout the six-county area. Since 1990, the number of poor in the suburbs has nearly doubled. Meanwhile, Chicago’s total stayed about the same.
Suburban population growth is just part of the explanation; changes in the economy are also at work. Suburban wages are lagging behind, according to the Social Impact Research Center. For example, pay went up 31 percent between 1990 and 2011 for Chicagoans working in retail but only 18 percent for their suburban counterparts. Pay rose 39 percent for Chicagoans in manufacturing jobs but only 22 percent for suburban factory workers.
Suburban social service groups are having trouble meeting the needs, says Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform.
“DuPage County lacks the infrastructure of poverty,” she says, explaining that the area doesn’t have as many programs to help the poor as Chicago does. “State and federal funding for human services is disproportionately going to the city instead of the suburbs. ... An eligible child that lives in Chicago is about four times more likely to get a slot in Head Start than an eligible child that lives in DuPage.”
Huntley resident Kathleen Wiedenfeld recognizes there’s poverty around her in McHenry County, but she sees direr needs in Pembroke Township, a rural area 90 miles to the south. The township, which includes Hopkins Park, has been the subject of many news stories over the decades describing it as one of the nation’s poorest places. It has been predominantly African-American since former slaves settled there in the 1860s. Some of the area’s homes lack heat and running water.
Wiedenfeld’s group, One Neighbor at a Time, has been helping Pembroke residents since 2010 with efforts such as digging wells.
“Helping one person at a time is great,” Wiedenfeld says. “But I want to do so much more. It just should not ever, ever be that way, anywhere — and especially in the United States, Illinois, two hours from my house. It’s horrible.”
In 2011, the county with the state’s highest poverty rate was Jackson, in southern Illinois, where 33.7 percent were poor. Jackson County is dominated by Carbondale, which had a poverty rate of 47.4 percent. That figure is skewed higher by the presence of 18,000 undergraduate students at Southern Illinois University, but the college doesn’t entirely explain the city’s high poverty rate. Even among people with families, the rate was 32.7 percent.
“Our services are going up tremendously,” says Mike Heath, executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries in Carbondale. Heath’s group helped 6,000 families with its food pantry in 2012, a 28 percent increase — followed by a similar increase in 2013. Numbers are also up at Good Samaritan’s soup kitchen, which served 29,000 meals in 2012.
“A lot of folks are losing their full-time jobs and their benefits,” Heath says. And with Congress cutting food stamps last fall, he says, “some people are losing up to $150 a month in food stamps. When you’re trying to feed a family of two or three kids, that is a major, major loss.”
Heath, 67, has lived in southern Illinois since 1980, watching as coal-mining jobs dwindled. “We have a lot of service jobs,” he says. “We are crying to get any manufacturing. But Illinois doesn’t lend itself to new manufacturing.”
Another Illinois city, Peoria, does have manufacturing jobs, thanks to the mammoth presence of Caterpillar Inc. The company is in a slump, with layoffs and dropping profits, but it still employs more than 16,000 people in the Peoria area. Caterpillar is the main reason why the recession wasn’t as bad in Peoria as it was elsewhere, City Treasurer Patrick Nichting recently told the Peoria Journal Star.
And yet, Peoria anti-poverty activist McFarland Bragg sees many people in his city struggling to find work.
“It used to be in Peoria, you could leave high school, go to work for Caterpillar and work 30 years,” he says. But now, he says, “we have a serious unemployment problem within the African-American community. … We don’t have young African-Americans going into the building trades. And jobs that used to go to teenagers — fast-food jobs — those are going to dislocated workers.”
Bragg is president and CEO of Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity, which helps the poor with Head Start classes, food pantries and home construction.
“We’re seeing a significant increase in the number of people coming to the food bank,” Bragg says. In November, the group’s food bank was on track to set a record, supplying 3.2 million pounds of food to needy people in eight counties in 2013, up from 2.9 million pounds the year before.
Almost 30,000 Peoria residents — or 26.1 percent — were poor in 2012. That was up from 18.1 percent five years earlier.
Bragg’s organization felt the impact of the gridlock in Washington, when “sequestration” spending cuts took effect last year — slashing $240,000 from the funding for Head Start classes in Peoria.
“This is actually an investment in our future, our economic future,” Bragg says. “If kids can’t read, they’re not going to be able to work.”
Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of poverty. More than 600,000 children in Illinois — one out of every five kids — were poor in 2012.
According to a study last year by the Equality of Opportunity Project, Chicago’s poor children face tough odds of escaping poverty. Only 6.1 percent of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale end up in the top fifth. The odds are better — 10 percent — for kids in New York and Los Angeles.
“Being born into poverty really in this country defines your life chances,” Terpstra says. “There are compounding disadvantages for kids born into really poor communities.”
The federal government, the state of Illinois and many local governments are struggling to balance their budgets, but Bragg doesn’t accept that as an excuse for failing to provide education, job training and other services that could lift people out of poverty.
“Not having enough money — that’s not one that I buy,” he says. “We spent how many billions in Iraq and Afghanistan? There’s money. It just becomes a matter of what your priority is.”
Robert Loerzel is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.
Illinois Issues, January 2014