It's not bad luck that's keeping this Peoria resident from the work force. He is a product of his environment - of an expanding number of Americans pushed into poverty as a result of the recession. The 2009 report on Illinois Poverty released Thursday reveals signs of increasing poverty throughout the state. Poverty worsened in more than half of the state's 102 counties even before the recession began in December 2007.
It's not bad luck that's keeping this Peoria resident from the work force. He is a product of his environment - of an expanding number of Americans pushed into poverty as a result of the recession.
The former Caterpillar Inc. 6 Sigma electrical engineer, who asked that his name not be used, lost his job about four months ago. He has no retirement. He's exhausted his savings. The Internet technology specialist applied for between five and 10 jobs that match his skill set daily throughout the United States to no avail.
An income tax refund helped make most of his bills current. But he is behind on his mortgage payment. And if his situation doesn't change in the next 30 to 60 days, he may lose his house and everything else.
"On the way to Caterpillar each morning, probably since September when I was aware of the economic downturn, I would pray that those people who had lost their jobs would find sustenance somehow. I also prayed that I didn't want to be one of those people," he said.
The story is not uncommon.
In February, there was one job opening available for every five Midwesterners. The number of workers in part-time jobs because they cannot find full-time work has nearly doubled nationally since mid-2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The 2009 report on Illinois Poverty released Thursday reveals signs of increasing poverty throughout the state. Poverty worsened in more than half of the state's 102 counties even before the recession began in December 2007.
The most current poverty data from 2007, therefore, does not capture economic realities, the report's authors wrote.
As many as 405,000 more Illinoisans are likely to have been pushed into poverty as a result of the recession.
"We're seeing a whole new segment of people who have never been in poverty before or needed assistance, and now they're popping up in food pantries and shelters and places that they've never had to go before for help," said Amy Terpstra, a senior research analyst at Heartland Alliance Mid-America Institute on Poverty, a not-for-profit Chicago-based organization that produces the annual poverty report.
A wake-up call
The poverty report should serve as a wake-up call to community leaders, Terpstra said.
Nearly all the counties in the Journal Star circulation area are on a watch or warning list based on four indicators: high school graduation rates, teen birth rates, unemployment rates and poverty rates from 2007.
By comparison, in 2005, no central Illinois counties made the warning list.
Peoria County's poverty rate in 2007 was 13.6 percent, earning it a place on the watch list. Being on the watch list means a county needs to be monitored, while warning means corrective action needs to be taken.
Tazewell, Woodford, Stark and Marshall counties were the only ones in the Journal Star circulation area not on a list, while Mason County is on the warning list. Statewide, nearly 1.5 million Illinoisans, or almost 12 percent of the state's population, were in poverty in 2007.
"Poverty is not a new phenomenon. While more and more families are now finding themselves in harder times, a significant number of residents were already struggling long before this current economic crisis," said Sid Mohn, president of Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights.
Poverty: the changing faces
As unemployment figures continue to climb, the number of people showing up at local food pantries has at least tripled in the past year.
The Salvation Army food pantry served 4,400 meals a month in the first six months of 2008. In the last half of the year, that figure jumped to more than 7,000.
The faces of those in need are starting to change, said Rich Draeger, assistant development director at The Salvation Army.
"You can't really put a hard and fast line on what is and what isn't poverty, but we are seeing people you wouldn't traditionally expect to see. Most social service agencies are starting to see it creep into the middle class," he said.
The federal government sets the poverty standard at an annual income below $22,050 for a family of four.
"Now, some of the people who contributed to The Salvation Army are the ones who are needing help. That's a very good indicator of the downturn in the economy," Draeger said.
Other Salvation Army services including shelters and short-term help with rent and utilities are seeing an increased need.
Absent effective interventions, about 34,500 more Illinois residents may experience homelessness by the end of 2010, the report notes.
"Luckily, at least for the time being, people are still being responsive to that in terms of giving," Draeger said. "We're more concerned down the road and our next Christmas campaign will be tougher than in 2008. People will have been in the situation for a full year, and that's going to provide a larger challenge."
An epidemic? A solution
Municipalities and counties are struggling to provide basic services as sales and income tax revenues and interest earnings decrease while consumers contract spending and individuals lose their jobs.
"In the private sector when the economy dips, orders go down. In the public sector, our orders go up as demand increases at a time when our revenues are decreasing, so it's important that everyone understands it's a challenge for government," said Peoria County Administrator Patrick Urich, who also is president of the Illinois City/County Management Association.
Demand is increasing among social service and health care agencies, placing more spending pressure on the county.
Planning is key; thus far the county hasn't cut any services and has reserve funds to hopefully weather downturns.
Businesses are cutting back. Massive job cuts at Caterpillar will affect local governments, with the city of Peoria and Peoria County most vulnerable, according to a February Moody's U.S. Public Finance report.
"Local governments in the Peoria area and elsewhere in the state will face budget and credit pressures as a result of the job cuts," the report states. "For cities, the cutbacks are likely to contribute to a further decline in sales tax collections already weakened by the general economic slowdown. Counties are likely to see increased spending for social services."
All hope is not lost.
The poverty report recommends lawmakers establish anti-poverty measures and adequate funding for human services and leverage federal resources provided through the stimulus bill to address employment and training needs of people in poverty.
The Illinois Legislature's recently formed Commission on the Eradication of Poverty is charged with creating a plan to cut extreme poverty in the state in half by the year 2015. The group will convene in May.
"There's tangible things local communities can be doing to address poverty. Leaders can create an atmosphere of opportunity for residents by working to attract and retain good-paying, stable jobs," Terpstra said. "They can remove barriers to employment by focusing on transportation and job training and ensuring local education and training opportunities are relevant to the jobs in the community and high quality."
Karen McDonald can be reached at (309) 686-3285 or firstname.lastname@example.org.