Chicago Tribune: Census finds more people than ever living in poverty

September 14, 2011

By William Mullen, Ryan Haggerty and John Keilman, Tribune reporters

The parking lot of the United Methodist Church of Worth was overflowing Tuesday night, forcing some people to park their vehicles across the sidewalk.

The number of people coming to the church’s food pantry has steadily increased in recent years, said the facility’s director, Susan Greer. On most days the pantry is open, more than 160 families show up to get groceries.

“I’m making it, but I’m not making it very good,” said Warren Smith, 53, a house painter who saw steady work dry up about five years ago.

The number of people in similar predicaments is growing across the country. In a grim portrait of a nation in economic turmoil, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the number of people living in poverty last year surged to 46.2 million — the most in the 52 years the statistic’s been kept. A million more Americans went without health insurance and household incomes fell sharply, the data showed.

Fueled by a bad economy and the growing ranks of jobless workers, the record numbers did not spare Illinois, where 1.8 million of the state’s 12.9 million residents now live at or below the federal poverty line, according to the census report.

The poverty rate for all Americans rose in 2010 for the third straight year, matching the 15.1 percent figure in 1993. The poverty rate in Illinois was a point lower, 14.1 percent, and the growth from 13.3 percent in 2009 has not gone unnoticed by those who work with the poor every day.

“The face of poverty is changing,” said Kim Perez of the People’s Resource Center, a DuPage County organization that offers food, rent assistance and other help to low-income people. “It’s not what many people think of when they think of poverty. It’s your neighbor next door who you might not know is struggling.”

The combination of unemployment and high gas and food prices has been pushing once financially stable families over the edge, Perez said. Her center served 32,000 people last year, she said, and more than a third of them had never been there before.

By the Census Bureau’s latest measure, the poverty threshold last year was an income of $11,139 for one person and $22,314 for a family of four.

Even the fully employed find themselves increasingly pinched financially. Inflation-adjusted median household income fell 2.3% last year to $49,445 from the previous year. That was down 7 percent from 2000.

“It’s a lost decade for the middle class,” said Sheldon Danziger, a poverty expert at the University of Michigan.

The census report, coming shortly after President Obama unveiled a proposed $447 billion package of tax cuts and spending to revive job growth and the recovery, is almost certain to intensify the debate over the government’s role in helping the poor and unemployed at a time of budget deficits and painful cutbacks in public assistance services.

“You have shelters closing, staff at shelters being cut, numbers of beds maintained in shelters being cut, daytime programming for the homeless being cut,” said Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group for homeless shelters. “We even see reductions of food portions begin given out in shelters.”

Public and private agencies that help the poor are being stretched to the extreme by growing demands for assistance.

“In the fiscal year that ended June 30, we serviced 5.1 million individual visits to our food pantries,” said Bob Dolgan, spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which operates 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in the city and Cook County. “You go back just three years ago, it was 3.2 million visits.”

Cuts to even relatively small government assistance programs are making it difficult to serve the growing numbers of poor, said Shurna, citing an 87 percent cut to an $11 million state program designed to prevent homelessness.

“So many people are just one catastrophe from becoming homeless, suddenly unable to make a house or rent payment because of unforeseen medical bills or some other emergency,” he said. “Now, because of this cut, 10,371 such people will not be helped.”

Analysts said the real level of poverty in the U.S. might be even worse than the data indicates. Experts agree that the poverty thresholds, designed in the early 1960s, don’t capture the spending and living needs of people in today’s economy.

Amy Terpstra, director of social impact research at the nonprofit Heartland Alliance in Chicago, said government assistance is in many cases all that keeps people out of poverty.

“Without unemployment insurance, an additional 3.2 million people would have been poor in 2010,” Terpstra said. She said many millions more people would slip below the poverty line if they were denied government assistance like food stamps and earned income tax credits.

She also cited the growing number of young single adults forced to live with their parents.

“In the spring of 2011, 14.2 percent of the 25- to 34-year-olds in the U.S, were living in their parents’ homes,” said Terpstra. “That is 5.9 million young adults. If we didn’t count parents’ income, 45.3 percent would qualify as being poor.”

The census report found more Americans again lost health insurance last year, continuing a decade-long erosion in coverage that pushed the percentage of uninsured to 16.3 percent, the highest ever recorded.

But the decline in health coverage slowed between 2009 and 2010 and was not statistically significant, according to census analysts.

And the number of young people between 18 and 24 who had insurance increased significantly, possibly reflecting the impact of the new health care law, which allows dependents up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ health plans.

As Americans lost coverage through work, they have increasingly relied on government programs such as Medicaid.

“The real policy take-away is the importance of protecting the safety net,” said Ron Pollack, chief executive of Families USA, a consumer advocate. “Medicaid is the lifeline.”

Local lifelines such as food banks are becoming increasingly important too.

Carrie Thomas, 43, said she had never been to a food pantry until Tuesday, when she showed up at the one operated out of the basement of the United Methodist Church in south suburban Worth.

“I have never, ever had to ask for help before,” said Thomas, who said she and her 13-year-old daughter have been living in her car since July, about eight months after she had to close a thrift store she ran in Braidwood because the shop wasn’t making enough money.

Thomas said she has applied for dozens of jobs without success. She said she often has only a can of Pepsi for dinner, letting her daughter eat whatever food they have.