Bill Knight | Poverty



The word poverty can conjure thoughts of Appalachia, Ethiopia or inner-city neighborhoods, but often the reality of the less fortunate isn’t “them.” It’s “us.”

The poor are used to being ignored.

Poverty increased in almost one-third of U.S. counties since 2016, according to Stateline, a nonpartisan news service funded by Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Most of the biggest increases were in areas both rural and Southern,” reported Tim Henderson, staff writer for Pew Charitable Trusts. “Those areas generally had residents who lacked job training and skills and industries that suffered downturns.”

Poverty is measured by the “poverty rate,” the percentage of people in households earning less than the “poverty threshold,” now $21,330 for a family of three.

The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) cites data from the Institute for Policy Studies indicating that from 1979 to 2012, 99% of Americans had incomes decline by 2% while the country’s top 1% saw incomes grow by 177%. In Illinois, 44% of residents are poor or low-income: 5.7 million people, PPC reports.

The Census Bureau’s most recent Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program lists poverty rates by county. For central Illinois, Fulton (population 32,011, with a median [midpoint] household income of $51,258), has 4,559 in poverty (14.2%), with 1,375 of 6,713 children in poverty (20.4%); Knox (pop. 46,151, with a median household income of $44,553), has 7,558 in poverty (16.3%), with 2,171 of 9,554 children in poverty (22.7%); Peoria (pop. 175,603, with a median household income of $56,478), has 29,227 in poverty (16.6%), with 9,499 of 41,713 children in poverty (22.7%); Tazewell (pop. 129,453, with a median household income of $61,508), has 12,465 in poverty (9.6%), with 3,587 of 29,450 children in poverty (12.1%); and Woodford (pop. 37,380, with a median household income of $72,247), has 2,662 in poverty (7.1%), with 705 of 9,126 children in poverty (7.7%);

The nation’s median household income is $61,937 in Illinois, it’s $65,063.

About 140 million Americans are in poverty, according to the PPC, which expresses disappointment in elected officials or candidates largely ignoring that.

“We’ve had nearly 30 debates since 2016, and not one of them has focused on poverty,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, PPC co-chair.

If politicians don’t discuss poverty much – more often talking about the middle class – that might be because Americans are uncomfortable with class issues, or perhaps too few politicians spend much time in poor areas.

Frank Abdnour, Supervisor at Peoria Township, which administers General Assistance, thinks it may be because candidates realize addressing economic needs isn’t quick or simple.

“Poverty is a huge issue. I suspect the reason it is not mentioned more regularly is that there is no easy solution to the problem,” Abdnour says. “It is complicated. We can bring more jobs to the area, but that alone is not enough. It will require not just politicians, but the whole community working together. I think it stays off the debate and campaign trails as a result.”

Factors contributing to poverty range from access to jobs that pay adequately and available education to living in areas with genuine economic opportunities and decent qualities of life.

“When 250,000 people die every year from poverty, it is time for the presidential candidates to make good on the promises they made … to push for a debate on poverty,” Barber said. “We are calling on both sides of the aisle to have a debate on poverty in both the primary and general elections.”

In Central Illinois, Capt. Lisa Thorson of the Salvation Army Galesburg Corps says, “It’s a forgotten population, and working people are hit hard. That’s the part of our population that is hidden.”

The working class makes too much for assistance but not enough to make ends meet, Thorson adds.

“Government uses your gross income to see if you qualify, but after taxes and child care and so on, people just can’t live off what’s left – their net income.
And if something unforeseen happens, a car accident or miscarriage or whatever, they’re in more [financial] trouble.

“It’s not a crisis, but it could be,” she says. “More and more people have jobs but live from paycheck to paycheck.”

Some help is available. Programs from the federal government or the Illinois Department of Human Services include Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), housing assistance, Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Low Income Home Energy Assistance, plus township relief.

However, too few qualified people are fully aware of assistance or eligibility, Abdnour says.

“The criteria for [Township] General Assistance is four things,” he says. “You must be 18 years old or older, live in the township where you’re applying, you cannot have dependent children, and you must have zero income for at least 30 days.”

Non-government help also plays a role, from clothing and furniture to rent assistance and food pantries.

“We work with more agencies than ever,” Abdnour says. “The Hope Network and church groups have started to get the chronic needy to the agencies that can help. We can start getting individuals off the street and back into the work force or just back into society.”

Greater awareness could mean attention to neighbors in need, fellow citizens ignored instead of part of the conversation.

“The key is for all of us to work together and promote each other,” Abdnour adds.

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