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Poverty's Grip on Illinois: One in Three "Near or Over the Brink"

PHOTO: Chicago resident Rodney Dawkins used to be homeless and now works to help others in the same situation. He agreed to let his story be part of a new report about poverty in Illinois.
PHOTO: Chicago resident Rodney Dawkins used to be homeless and now works to help others in the same situation. He agreed to let his story be part of a new report about poverty in Illinois.
January 16, 2013

CHICAGO - Poverty has a grip on Illinois and won't let go.

A new report by the Social Impact Research Center finds one in three Illinoisans - 33 percent - living in poverty or on the brink of it. Amy Terpstra, the report's co-author, says she's been researching this issue for several years and hasn't seen numbers like this in a long time.

"We are at the highest point we've ever been with that statistic. If you look back to 2000, it was about 25 percent of the state was poor or near it. If you look back even further, to 1990 and to 1980, you're still hovering around that 25 percent mark."

Who are the 33 percent? The report says they live in all neighborhoods in Illinois and profiles several, including a Wheaton woman with a college degree who works at a fast-food restaurant but can't afford the $1 cup of coffee there.

The report cites low wages, lack of affordable housing, joblessness and medical bankruptcies as causes. Among the remedies it recommends is an increase in the minimum wage.

Rodney Dawkins says he struggled for years, living on the streets and riding the "El" train' at night. Now, he lives in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, thanks to a housing voucher. He found a job helping others who are homeless and hopes to go back to school. He says he never gave up, and allowed his picture and story to be included in the report for a reason.

"To help educate, empower and encourage individuals that this is only temporary."

Terpstra says programs that prevent homelessness and fund education are investments the state cannot afford to neglect. She says those who stereotype poor people as "lazy" or "living off the government" are wrong, adding that hardly anyone gets cash assistance these days.

"Those numbers have diminished tremendously since the late 1990s. And in Illinois, there are only about 60,000 people who are on that program, and it's a time-limited program."

The report finds 4 million Illinoisans living in poverty or very close to the edge, without much of a safety net.

This year, Terpstra says, 39 counties made the "watch" or "warning" list in the report. Cook and Peoria counties are on the warning list, meaning corrective action is needed there to help alleviate poverty.

The report is online at heartlandalliance.org.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL