1 in 3 Illinois residents live in poverty

Belleville News-DemocratFebruary 11, 2013 

Quanyshia Wooten found herself struggling to make ends meet after her third child was born.

The East St. Louis resident and single parent said she had never lived on welfare and did not want to turn to it.

"I told people that it wasn't that I was too good to be on welfare, but it wasn't an avenue that I was ready to face," Wooten said. "Then I did."

New statistics from a Chicago-based social research group reveal that one in three Illinois residents are living below or near the poverty line. According to the Social Impact Research Center, a program of Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, almost 1.8 million, or 15 percent, of Illinoisans live in poverty. Another 2.2 million Illinois residents, 17.9 percent, have incomes between 100 percent and 199 percent of the poverty level.

A family of four with an annual income of less than $23,021 is considered to be living below the poverty line. Of the state's 12.5 million residents, 4 million are considered low-income or are living in poverty. That rate has increased by 3.1 percent since 2007.

Amy Terpstra, associate director of the Social Impact Research Center, said these numbers are the worst on record.

"We have seen the statistics and numbers grow over the course of more than a decade that we have done this report," Terpstra said. "That is by and large the highest we have seen since we have been doing this report."

Twenty-eight of the state's 102 counties have poverty rates between 15 percent and 20 percent, and nine counties had poverty rates at more than 20 percent. According to the report, St. Clair County is one of 14 counties on the Warning List and is one of 39 counties that are either on the Poverty Watch or Poverty Warning Lists. The county had a 19.1 percent poverty rate in 2011. Madison County's poverty rate in 2011 was 7.9 percent and was not on either list.

Terpstra said this issue is not limited to the metro-east.

"A lot of times we hear people say things like 'There is a poverty problem in Chicago, there is a poverty problem in East St. Louis, there is a poverty problem in Southern Illinois,'" she said "This is clearly a statewide issue."

The study indicates that poverty is affected by high unemployment, teen births and diminishing returns on those with only a high school diploma. Workers with only a high school education are earning 7 percent less now than they did 40 years ago, and those without a high school diploma earn 21 percent less than they did in that time.

The change has also been affected by the state's declining manufacturing sector. Terpstra said the workforce has been shifted away from manufacturing toward service jobs.

"Time and time again, I've experienced large corporations and large manufacturing plants close up and leaving, so primarily the shift is a shift from manufacturing jobs which often do not require education past high school," she said. "We are seeing a move toward service jobs that don't command as high a value, wage-wise."

Terpstra said the recent recession that was sparked by the nation's housing crisis and followed by high unemployment has left more challenges facing the poor than before. The report also cites that one in four Illinois residents does not have enough money saved in the event of a sudden drop in income. There are only 59 available affordable rental units for every 100 low-income renters. Also, 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies filed in 2007 came from medical problems, and 75 percent of them had medical insurance when they got sick.

"Poverty exists because of the economic recession in the suburbs of Chicago, the metro-east area and everywhere in between," she said. "Unemployment is going to affect poverty. Our recession has had an effect. The recession has just not added jobs back at a rate we have seen. There are not enough jobs and not enough jobs people can earn a living if they can earn a living and escape poverty."

In 2008, Wooten sought help. She went to the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, a United Methodist community center whose mission is to empower individuals and families to move out of poverty. Wooten went through a work experience program. She received support from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a block grant program that helps move those from welfare to work.

By June 2009, Wooten was placed in a child care center, where she continues to work to this day. She has since gone to college and received her associate's degree in business education.

It hasn't been easy, she said, but it all began when she realized that she could not do it on her own.

"Some people are ashamed and embarrassed because I was," Wooten said. "But if you know you don't want to be on welfare forever, then you use it as a stepping stone to do something else. I was on welfare for a year and I used that time to go to school to get my degree and gain employment."

She now is working toward a bachelor's degree and has plans to operating a day care on her own.

"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It actually gave me a sense of accomplishment about myself because it was something I had to do because I had no other choice. If I didn't make that decision, I don't know where I would be at this moment."

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