Suburban poverty now half of Chicago region's total

A new analysis showing Chicago-area poverty is now evenly distributed between the city and suburbs is due in part to the “urbanization” of the suburbs, one local workforce official says.

A report released by the Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center shows that half the poverty in the Chicago area was concentrated in the suburbs in 2011, a sharp contrast from 1990, when 66 percent of the area’s poverty called the city home.

During that period, the number of suburban residents living in poverty nearly doubled while the number of city residents in poverty stayed about the same. Both figures come in around 630,000 people, according to the report, which is titled “Poverty Matters.”

“Consider what McHenry County was like 20 years ago,” said Jeffery Poynter, director of the McHenry County Workforce Network. “Much more rural, less urban. You’ve got urbanization happening in the suburban areas.”

McHenry County’s poverty rate was 8 percent in 2011, compared with 11 percent throughout the suburbs. Chicago has a poverty rate of 24 percent, according to the Social Impact Research Center.

Virginia Peschke, president of the Woodstock Food Pantry, said she’s seen plenty of change in her 30 years with the pantry.

“It does seem like we’re getting more families,” she said. “It’s hard to tell whether these are people who have migrated to our county or if they’re here and have lost their employment. I can’t tell what the increase is [based on].”

The authors of the report note that a migration from the city to the suburbs is one of several factors contributing to the trend.

Poynter offered several factors driving poverty’s growth in McHenry County.

“Part of it’s a migration,” he said. “Part of it has to do with the rising costs – costs have risen faster than incomes. We have that diminishing middle class. Our buying power has diminished, and there’s a greater divide between haves and have-nots.”

The trend toward suburban poverty isn’t isolated to Chicago, said Jennifer Clary, research associate for the Social Impact Research Center.

“It really drives home the point that poverty is not simply an urban issue,” Clary said. “We’ve been seeing that shift happening, but for it to balance out at 50-50 was a surprise.”

Across the county, poverty rates differ greatly by community, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

Harvard and Woodstock register the two highest rates in the county at 28.5 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively. Poverty rates in Crystal Lake, Huntley and Algonquin each come in below 5 percent.

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