Poverty creeps into county

Vicenta Fuentes of Harvard picks up groceries Tuesday at the Harvard Food Pantry. Recent poverty estimates put 28.5 percent of Harvard's population below the poverty line.
Vicenta Fuentes of Harvard picks up groceries Tuesday at the Harvard Food Pantry. Recent poverty estimates put 28.5 percent of Harvard's population below the poverty line.

Nearly 10,300 more McHenry County residents now live in poverty than four years ago, a “creeping poverty” trend that many local and statewide experts say is widespread among the Chicago suburbs.

The economic downturn, escalating costs of living, sluggish wages and job loss have pounded many living and working in Chicago’s more affluent collar counties, including McHenry, Lake, DuPage, Kane and Will.

According to the Social IMPACT Research Center – a division of the Heartland Alliance that releases an annual statewide report on poverty – living below the poverty line is defined by an income of $11,484 for an individual; $14,657 for a family of two; $17,916 for a family of three; and $23,021 for a family of four.

In 2007, individuals throughout McHenry County living below the poverty line stood at 5.7 percent, an annual U.S. Census survey of areas with 65,000-plus population found. That percentage in 2011 swelled to 9.2 percent, totaling 28,226 residents.

“There is a crisis here. People can’t afford to live where they are living,” said Jerry Monica, Habitat for Humanity of McHenry County’s executive director. “There is a creeping poverty that exists. It’s the lousy economy. It is hurting us.”

Monica has seen more low-income families apply for the group’s homeownership program. The number of families seeking assistance from Habitat’s critical home-repair program is nearing triple digits for the first time in three years, he said.

Leaders from McHenry County PADS and the Harvard Food Pantry share Monica’s concerns because they have seen demand for their services escalate since the recession began in 2008.

Poverty in Chicago’s suburbs often is difficult to fathom because the suburbs are regarded as more wealthy than their inner-city neighbor, said Amy Terpstra, assistant director of the Social IMPACT Research Center. But the poverty trend quietly has changed during recent decades.

In 1980, 75 percent of poverty in the Chicago area was located in the city, Terpstra said. The poverty pendulum in the Chicago region now is a 50/50 split between Chicago and its suburbs.

The 10,300 more McHenry County residents who now live in poverty compared to 2007 are “emblematic” of the increasing poverty rates in the suburbs, Terpstra said.

“It’s one of the poster [children] for this trend,” she said.

The alliance’s newest report on poverty, released last month, showed 33 percent of Illinoisans are living in or near poverty, which equals one in three Illinois residents living in or near poverty. Roughly 15 percent - 1.9 million - of Illinois residents are living in poverty.

Poverty rates increased by 10 percent from 2010 in McHenry County, 24 percent in Lake County, 15 percent in Kane County and 14 percent in DuPage County, the report found.

Will County was the only suburban area to see a decrease from 2010, with rates falling by 1.5 percent.

“It hits very close to home,” Terpstra said. “The odds are you are coming across people every day who are a part of that 33 percent.”

The larger cities

Cindy Chicoine spends every Tuesday and Thursday with people who make up the 33 percent living in or near poverty.

Chicoine, co-director for the FISH of McHenry Food Pantry, didn’t hesitate when asked whether the pantry that serves low-income residents in the McHenry and Johnsburg area was seeing more demand. The group sees more than 500 families a month, a 20 percent jump from last year. The volunteers operate the pantry two days a week for five hours total.

“It’s disturbing that there is that many people in need,” she said. “But I’m grateful we are able to support them and are able to be of assistance to them because a lot of them are really struggling.”

The U.S. Census Bureau surveys poverty differently depending on an area’s population size. For areas between 20,000 and 65,000 people, the census collects data from households for three years before releasing the results.

McHenry has one of the highest poverty rates out of the county’s larger cities. But the rate, 10.4 percent, has remained stable the past six years, a comparison of the census’s latest three-year surveys show.

Nearly 2,785 of the city’s 28,712 population are living below the poverty line.

Lake in the Hills has seen a dramatic jump in poverty. The Census Bureau put the city’s rate at 2.8 percent after surveying residents from 2006 to 2008. It escalated to 7.4 percent the next three years.

More than 3,200 Woodstock residents now are in poverty after the city’s rate increased from 10 percent in the middle of the decade to 13.7 percent in the latter half.

Matt Kostecki, coordinator for McHenry County PADS, has seen more people seek the group’s homeless services and has seen younger faces request those services.

Persistently low wages in the face of increasing living costs is driving the increase, he said.

The small towns

Linda Lindstrom sees more and more of her Harvard neighbors visit the local food pantry out of necessity.

The roughly 8,700 residents who live in Harvard, northwest of Woodstock, have done so with persistently high poverty.

Harvard’s rate is the highest in the county at 28.5 percent, according to the census, which tracks poverty at small towns in five-year increments.

“We would love to see people go back to work and not needing us, but I don’t think that will happen for a while,” said Lindstrom, who directs the Harvard Food Pantry, which served 601 families last month.

In Hebron, poverty stands at 9.3 percent. In Marengo, the rate is 9.9 percent. Johnsburg’s rate is lower at 6.1 percent.

The Heartland Alliance has suggested raising the minimum wage and increasing access to affordable housing as potential solutions for solving the thorny poverty issue.

Lindstrom believes the escalating poverty trend throughout the county could slow once the economy improves. But she doesn’t know when, or if, that will happen.

In the meantime, Lindstrom will serve with a heavy heart the many Harvard residents who use the pantry.

“When I see single mothers with babies walking from town for food, it breaks my heart because it shouldn’t be like this,” she said. “But it is.”

Escalating poverty

In 2007, McHenry County’s poverty rate was 5.7 percent (17,943 residents below poverty line)

In 2011, the county rate jumped to 9.2 percent (28,226 residents below poverty live)

Source: U.S. Census American Community Survey one-year estimates

Most recent poverty estimates

Harvard: 28.5 percent

Woodstock: 13.7 percent

McHenry: 10.4 percent

Marengo: 9.9 percent

Hebron: 9.3 percent

Lake in the Hills: 7.4 percent

Johnsburg: 6.1 percent

Wonder Lake: 5.2 percent

Crystal Lake: 4.2 percent

Huntley: 4.1 percent

Algonquin: 3 percent

Sources: U.S. Census American Community survey 3-year estimates and 5-year estimates

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