New challenges in decades-long war on poverty, report finds

Illinois’ poor facing different challenges from 50 years ago, report finds

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 11:53 p.m. CDT

The number of Illinoisans living in poverty today remains relatively the same from 1960, but the faces of the state’s poor have changed, according to a new report from the Chicago-based Social IMPACT Research Center.

The state’s stagnant poverty rate – nearly 15 percent today, the same as in 1960 – doesn’t mean the war on poverty has been lost in the 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared it, said Jennifer Clary, one of the authors of the report released Thursday.

The many governmental programs that exist from Johnson’s Great Society simply don’t address the economic, geographic and demographic trends causing poverty today, she said.

“The face of poverty has really changed,” Clary said. “We need to recalibrate our strategies for ending poverty. A lot of our anti-poverty strategies are calibrated to what poverty looked like in the 1960s.”

Nearly 1.85 million of the state’s people live in poverty today compared to the 1.45 million Illinoisans living in poverty in 1960. In McHenry County, 23,277 people were in poverty in 2012, a 0.4 percent drop from 2011, according to data from Social IMPACT.

The number of Illinois seniors living in poverty has dropped dramatically over the past five decades, from 29.8 percent in 1960 to 8.8 percent in 2012, Social IMPACT found.

Expanded government programs, like Social Security and Medicare, helped lift many seniors out of poverty, Clary said.

Other programs from the 1960s aimed at rural poverty also have helped Illinois. Only 10 counties in Illinois now have a 20 percent-plus poverty rate compared to 68 counties in 1960, the report found.

But those programs have failed to adapt to new challenges, especially ones facing Illinois workers, women and minorities, Clary said.

“We can look at those points of progress, but the striking challenges we’ve seen over the last few years is that we are really treading water and losing ground for workers and minority communities,” she said.

Nearly 388,000 Illinoisans are poor but live in households where someone works full time, the report shows. Poverty numbers for Blacks and Latinos have changed slightly, going from 35.8 and 20.7 percent in 1960 to 32 and 21.4 percent today.

Nearly 15.5 percent of working women are poor compared to 12.1 percent of working men, although rates for both genders spiked nearly three percentage points since 1960, the report found.

“Work isn’t working the way that it used to,” Clary said. Recently, President Barack Obama and Gov. Pat Quinn have called for increases to the national and state minimum wage rates.

More and more suburbs are also seeing poverty rates outpace the inner city of Chicago. In McHenry County, homelessness has steadily increased since the economic recession of the late 2000s.

The county’s social service groups tasked with fighting poverty frequently face constrained resources rather than inadequate programs, said Hans Mach, chairman of the McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness.

“The resources have remained flat or dwindled downward,” Mach said. “The programs work well in this county. There is just not enough money or resources for them.”

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