Changing Faces: McHenry County becoming more diverse, older

Demographic shifts over the last 14 years provide clues to what McHenry County is going to look like in the future. We should expect to be older and more diverse. How well are we situated for the gradually changing population?

This is the first part in our five-part Changing Faces series looking at U.S. Census and other data and an examination of how the housing industry, social services, education and local government is adjusting to changing demographics.

Sandra Gonzalez’s story is becoming more common in McHenry County.

Gonzalez, who left Mexico decades ago, came here 13 years ago because of the job opportunities and safety the area provided. Her husband was offered a job producing signs and banners, and the city of McHenry was a safer place to raise her then-newborn daughter, she said. 

“There has been a change and there is more diversity,” Gonzalez said of the increasing Latino population. “The community has become more accepting of Hispanic people … but there are still challenges.”

Census data show the Latino population will grow. As the white population — which never has dipped below 90 percent in the county — gets older, the Latino population is getting younger.

The Latino population in McHenry County is significantly ahead of other minority groups, with more than 35,249 people — roughly an 80 percent increase from 2000 to 2010.

The white population accounts for 90.1 percent of the county’s 308,760 residents, which is down from the 93.9 percent in 2000. The decline likely will continue as 42.4 percent of the white population is age 45 or older, and 84.2 percent of the Latino population is age 44 or younger, including 51.2 percent that is 24 years old or younger. The median age for whites is 40.5 in McHenry County, while it is 24.7 for Latinos.

In the most recent countywide, comprehensive Community Health Study, the report showed the Latino population was the foremost group in need of more community attention because of its size, barriers they confront in living here and array of services needed.

The study, facilitated by the Health Systems Research at University of Illinois-Rockford campus, is released every four years and combines interviews with community leaders, an online community survey and research into demographic and social trends to identify needs and improvements.

The study showed the dramatic shift in population trends has not led to many societal changes that should follow, Carlos Acosta said.

Acosta, who emigrated from Colombia when he was 4 years old, came to McHenry County in 2000 and has dedicated the majority of his 14 years in the area to helping the Latino community. The former executive director of the now-defunct McHenry County Latino Coalition said instead of countywide changes, it is hit-or-miss when it comes to organizations and companies adjusting to the increasing Latino population. 

“It is very sporadic. There has never really been any vision or plan for integration at the county level,” Acosta said of recognizing the growing population. “It depends on individual employers, towns and agencies. Some I have worked with are incredibly accommodating; others have a notorious reputation for mistreatment.”

Patricia Wallin, who also emigrated from Latin America when she was a child, said there are still basic barriers, such as a lack of bilingual providers, a lack of awareness to cultural differences and virtually no representation in public bodies.

Wallin, who has provided social services in Chicago and McHenry County, said the population change is much faster than the social change. 

“There is a lot to be done as far as representation,” Wallin said of the lack of Latinos on public boards. “It takes time, but I’m hopeful it will come.”

Those societal changes could come as the population continues to age, posing another set of challenges for McHenry County.

Between 2000 and 2010, the 45-to-64 age group increased 58.7 percent, and the 65-to-74 age group increased 63.5 percent. Meanwhile, the 25-to-44 age group and those 5 years old and younger decreased by roughly 6 percent each. The median age in the county also rose from 34 years old to 38, which is above the national average.

With the 45-to-64 age group now the county's largest at 28.4 percent of the population, Bette Schoenholtz, executive director of Senior Service Associates Inc., said it is important to make sure older individuals have access to healthy aging programs.

While it is always a challenge to meet the needs to a population that ranges from late 50s to more than 100 years old, Schoenholtz said McHenry County is one of the most equipped areas to handle the change. She said residents have shown a commitment to seniors with a special tax that was approved to provide services for that population.

"I think it is the premier place in Illinois as far as supporting older adults," Schoenholtz said of McHenry County. "The emphasis now has to be on the major public policy issue of how to keep people well."

Though the younger population is decreasing, more of the Latino population is now being born within the county. According to Census data, 70.2 percent of foreign-born residents entered the county before 2000. Residents such as Gonzalez's daughter, 14-year-old Karen Gonzalez, said that has helped create more opportunities.

The McHenry High School West student said schools especially have added more services for the Latino population since she first started, and she is more prepared to pursue college.

"Even the teachers are able to help and talk to me more," Karen Gonzalez said of the improvements from her elementary school days. "They do more to help parents understand, too."

Coming up:

Part 2: How have social service agencies been changing delivery models and what needs are they trying to fill?

Part 3: Is the housing market well suited for a population that's getting older?

Part 4: What are local educators doing to give students who aren't native English speakers the best chance to succeed?

Part 5: Are the shifts in ethnic diversity being reflected in local elected offices across McHenry County?

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