Out of hiding
Poverty is on the rise in Illinois and
increasingly visible. It can no longer be overlooked
Stephanie Zimmermann and Peg Kowalczyk
would be an easy bicycle ride down Lincoln Highway from the Lincoln
Mall in Matteson to Ricks Food & Liquors in Ford Heights.
Just a tad over six miles, though the traffic in this far south
suburban region of Chicago would be busy at the start.
Matteson, middle-class shoppers buy cosmetics at Carson Pirie Scott,
motorists gas up SUVs at Mobil, Citgo or Shell, parents fill shopping
carts at Jewel and Cub Foods and executives dine at Olive Garden,
Red Lobster or Fazolis.
the road heads into Ford Heights, though, the scenery changes. The
pharmacies and hotels cede to a currency exchange and a couple of
corner stores selling cheap beer. There are no gas stations, no
supermarkets certainly not a bank. Vacant properties abound,
as do burglar bars. This town of 3,456 is beset by formidable problems:
unemployment, inadequate education levels and a lack of quality
housing. Sociologist Pierre DeVise once called it the poorest suburb
in America. In the last U.S. Census, Ford Heights earned the dubious
distinction of having the highest percentage in America 34
percent of households headed by single mothers.
Bryant, executive director of the Ford Heights Community Service
Organization, has been battling the towns problems for more
than three decades, starting as a volunteer and working her way
up. Child care classes, computer training, a food pantry and other
programs Bryant coordinates aim to bridge the gap between welfare
reform and a lethargic economy. But jobless men still mill about
outside the community center, which also draws residents of such
neighboring towns as Sauk Village and Lynwood.
in Ford Heights, once filled with tidy homes populated by blue-collar
workers, are pockmarked by sagging porches, potholes, vacant lots
and uncollected garbage, monuments to the regions economic
tailspin. Half of the residents ages 16 and over are unemployed.
One in four households makes less than $10,000 a year. Ninety-six
percent African American, the town is a symbol of racially concentrated,
female-headed poverty in America.
some supportive services, theyre going to continue to remain
at the bottom of the economic scale, says Bryant, speaking
about the single moms she works with. Some of them feel like,
Whats the use, Im never going to work out of this
50 miles north and west, in wealthy DuPage County, another sort
of poverty exists. Its not as obvious as in Ford Heights.
In DuPage, among the shopping malls, chain restaurants, glitzy office
buildings and well-appointed schools there are concentrated pockets
of poor and working poor residents. They moved there to take such
service jobs as cashier or cleaner and can barely pay their rent.
There are folks who have gotten minimum wage jobs, and its
tough to live on that, says Roger Johnson, executive director
of the DuPage County office of Metropolitan Family Services, a nonprofit
hours down I-57 to the southernmost tip of the state, where the
Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, is yet another pocket of Illinois
poverty: Alexander County and its county seat, Cairo. There, amid
crumbling 19th century mansions, a history of segregationism and
steady economic decline have conspired to make Cairo one of the
most impoverished places in the state. The citys population
has dwindled every decade since 1920 from a high of 15,205
to the current low of 3,632 prompting the principal of Cairo
High School to advise the 1990 graduating class to leave.
is still no industry here and many still dont have jobs,
says lifelong Cairo resident Sarah Gatewood, resource officer for
the school truancy program. People are in a state of depression.
the images they conjure in the minds of Illinoisians, Ford Heights,
the suburbs of DuPage County and Cairo are about as different as
three places could be. But like dozens of other locales in Illinois,
they are faced with the problems of poverty and the challenges of
making welfare reform succeed. The aggravating factors may vary
from a lack of child care in Ford Heights to unaffordable
housing in wealthy DuPage to a failing local economy in Cairo
but there are common threads.
youre poor in Ford Heights or youre poor in Alexander
County or youre poor in DuPage County, everybody wants to
hide you, says antipoverty activist Doug Dobmeyer. Its
hard for most Illinoisans to understand how entrenched poverty is,
and if they dont understand, they can ignore it.
several years of improvement, the percentage of Illinois families
at or below the federal poverty line is again increasing, to almost
12 percent of the population or nearly 1.5 million Illinoisians
last year, according to the 2002 Report on Illinois Poverty
by the Illinois Poverty Summit, a diverse group of political, business
and nonprofit leaders that convenes annually to find ways to end
poverty. Thirty-nine of Illinois 102 counties have a serious
problem with poverty, the report concludes.
depth of poverty in this state gained national attention last September,
when, in a page one story, The New York Times profiled Pembroke
Township in Kankakee County as one of the poorest areas in the nation.
caution that the number of families struggling financially in Illinois
actually is much higher than the numbers reveal because the federal
poverty threshold of $18,400 for a family of four is much too low
to be meaningful, especially in places where housing and other basic
needs are expensive. Many social service agencies use 185 percent
or even 200 percent of the poverty rate to determine who qualifies.
With that income, youre probably still really struggling
to make ends meet, says Amy Rynell, director of the Heartland
Alliances Mid-America Institute on Poverty.
good news is that Illinois public aid rolls have dropped by
about 76 percent since welfare reform began in the mid-1990s. But
that advance also has increased the ranks of the working poor, many
of whom have multiple jobs yet must endure high housing costs, poor
transportation, no health insurance and substandard child care.
issues just pile up on you, says John Bouman, deputy director
for advocacy for the National Center on Poverty Law, based in Chicago.
Many of the people who used to be on welfare and are working
are still in poverty and theyre staying there.
downstate Cairo, 47 percent of children live in poverty, according
to the 2000 Census. Alexander Countys poverty rate of 26.1
percent was the highest of any county in the state, and its infant
mortality rate of 15.4 percent from 1998 to 2000 was the states
Elias Ace Hardware in Cairo is open, but the Shell is closed. The
Washateria is open, but the CutMart has closed. There is no McDonalds,
no Burger King, no Arbys. There is no recreation center, no
bowling alley, no movie theater. The Spirit House for liquor
is open, but the Christ Temple for souls is
closed. Churches are for sale, prices reduced. The Martin CME Temple
on Poplar Street is available, its public auction sign nailed to
a dead tree stump.
in the streets is now the recreational pastime. At 24th and Sycamore,
a former swimming pool is permanently filled with concrete and grown
over with weeds, the citys response to court-ordered integration.
Cairo, the issue of poverty cant be separated from the issue
of race. Gatewood remembers when the citys black citizens
couldnt get work in white-owned businesses and when rural
whites from Kentucky and Missouri were hired instead of local blacks.
She recalls when the Illinois National Guard was called into Cairo
in 1967 to quell racial violence.
coalition of black organizations formed the United Front of Cairo
in 1969, and the community sustained a three-year boycott of white-owned
businesses. By 1971, there was nothing left to picket. Downtown
businesses had closed.
the smoke cleared, we still had nothing, says Norma
Jean Vasser, who has lived in Cairo for nearly 50 years. White
businesses closed their doors rather than integrate.
Ewing, Cairos city treasurer and resident historian, doesnt
have unrealistic expectations for the city that once boasted seven
railroads and attracted shoppers from across the southern Illinois
region. Our goal should be to stabilize Cairo, not talk about
growth, he says. Potential employers will go where there
is greater viability and an infrastructure to support businesses.
in Ford Heights, decades of poverty have created a situation that
is difficult for residents to escape. Once a stop for fleeing slaves,
later a farming community and finally a largely working class suburb
of African Americans who worked in the areas auto and steel
industries, the former East Chicago Heights began to falter in the
public housing programs rapidly drew large numbers of impoverished
black Chicagoans to town, and that, coupled with the regions
economic decline, severely strained the community. Because Ford
Heights has become synonymous with poverty and crime, it is not
on the A-list of most businesses looking to relocate. And residents
who do find success frequently move away because the housing stock
is so poor.
what Gloria Bryant did. After living in Ford Heights for 48 years,
she finally moved south to Crete, where the housing choices were
who become upwardly mobile in some manner normally move out of the
community, and they are replaced by other people who are low-income
like they were, Bryant says. The community changes,
but somehow, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
is hoping some of the single moms who take the computer and child
care classes at the community center will one day become self-sufficient.
But they and their children wont have an easy time. Statistics
show its much harder for families to pull themselves out of
poverty when theres only one wage-earner.
Illinois children who were living in poverty between 1998 and 2001,
61.6 percent were in a female-headed household, the Illinois Poverty
Summit report says. And those youngsters are less likely to do well
in school. At Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, educators
managed to get 28.2 percent of the students to meet or exceed state
testing standards in 2002, after a dismal showing of just 11.6 percent
in 2001. What Ford Heights offers is a community of strong people,
DuPage County, with its high-tech industry and pricey homes, doesnt
suffer this reputation. But, like some other wealthy counties in
Illinois, its poverty rate is quietly climbing. Though still low
in proportion to the entire countys population, DuPages
poverty rate increased 33 percent, from 2.7 percent of the population
in 1989 to 3.6 percent in 1999. In the community of Addison, the
poverty rate more than doubled in that period, from 4.7 percent
to 9.6 percent. In addition, there are 50,000 working poor households
in DuPage County (defined as people living at or below 200 percent
of the federal poverty rate), according to the DuPage Federation
on Human Services Reform.
residents in places like DuPage County are forced to choose between
paying their rent or going to the doctor, living in a safe home
or having child care, keeping the phone on or having enough food.
An estimated 45,000 to 63,000 people in DuPage, for instance, have
no health insurance. And between January and March of last year,
an average of 8,424 DuPage County households turned to food pantries
has job opportunities but many are service jobs that dont
pay a living wage. Its pretty much impossible for a family
of four to live on a minimum wage salary in Illinois, assuming 30
percent of the households income as a benchmark amount for
rent. In DuPage County, a person would have to earn at least $15.15
an hour almost three times the minimum wage to afford
a two-bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $788, the countys
fair-market average, according to the DuPage Federation.
traveling from work to school to day care and to the doctors
office can be a nightmare for impoverished suburbanites, says Johnson
of Metropolitan Family Services. Theres not a bus system
that operates on a grid. If youre in an apartment complex
somewhere, you can really be isolated. And owning a car can
eat up a lot of money. Workers making $12 an hour spend about 20
percent of their income on transportation; minimum wage earners
($5.15 an hour) spend about 45 percent.
working poor can seem invisible among the affluent suburbs of DuPage,
says Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation.
We call that DuPage Syndrome. People think the
streets here are lined with gold. And they arent.
its poverty in Ford Heights, Cairo or the suburbs of DuPage
County, if society expects people to get off welfare and
studies show families do better once people are back in the workforce
Illinois has to offer support to lift them from being working
poor to the next level, says Dan Lewis, professor of education
and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston and director
of the university consortium that administers the Illinois Families
Study. That study is following more than 1,100 poor Illinois families
to see how they are faring under welfare reform.
can declare victory when you get people off public housing, you
can declare victory when you get people off welfare, but youre
wishing them luck in their ability to take care of themselves and
their kids, Lewis says.
has done some things right, Lewis says. Some of Illinois welfare
reform policies are considered moderate or even generous when compared
to other states: For example, Illinois allows stopped
clock exceptions for people who work 30 hours a week, attend
college or meet other requirements, helping them avoid reaching
their 60-month lifetime limit on receiving Temporary Assistance
for Needy Families. Its Work Pays program ignores two-thirds of
the workers job income when determining how much assistance
he or she will receive. Illinois also offers subsidized health insurance
for kids in families with incomes below 185 percent of the federal
supports must continue and be strengthened, argues Lewis.
he says, shouldnt forget they have an obligation to make sure
those families who have been pushed off welfare dont fail.
fighting poverty are crossing their fingers that having Gov. Rod
Blagojevich and his fellow Democrats in power in Springfield will
help their cause though no one is counting on a lot of extra
dollars for social services, given the states dismal financial
has advice for the new power base in Springfield: The main
point that Id make to the governor is dont be short-sighted
in terms of quick fixes, such as cutting Temporary Assistance
for Needy Families, Medicaid or other supports, he says. Those
investments are what make low-wage earners able to stay in the workforce,
and thats where we want them.
Lewis is realistic. If the governor and the General Assembly
go out and do a lot of taxing and spending, there wont be
a Blagojevich II.
Blagojevich, after running a campaign heavy on a theme of helping
working people, does favor some supports, such as an increase in
the minimum wage, which spokesman Billy Weinberg says will send
dollars flowing into the economy faster than a tax cut for upper-income
earners. The governor also favors increased child care and senior
care programs. But specifics are taking a back seat, for now, to
dealing with the state budget deficit, which the governor says could
reach $4.8 billion by the end of this next fiscal year.
think that anyone who is really committed to welfare reform understands
that you do have to, to a certain degree, provide people with the
tools they need, Weinberg says.
Ford Heights, Gloria Bryant tries to stay away from political prognosti-cating.
Shes too busy filling out grant applications.
are people. I dont care what label you put on them,
she says. Now, all she can do is hope.
Issues, March 2003
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