The Chicago Reporter: New census numbers reveal faces of deep poverty

By Deborah Shelton

Illinois is the home of the nation’s president, gleaming skyscrapers and tony shopping districts that attract millions of tourists from around the world.

The state also is where some of the poorest of the poor live.

About one in five Illinois residents live in or near poverty, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data. Of those, 36 percent live in deep poverty—defined as earning less than half of the federal poverty level, or about $12,000 per year for a family of four. The federal poverty line is defined as $23,850 for a family of four.

Nationally, 21 percent of Americans live at, below, or just above (up to 125 percent of the poverty standard, or about $30,000 for a family of four) the federal poverty line.

The numbers paint a stark picture of the haves and have-nots in Illinois and across the country.

The poorest of the poor are not always who people think they are—many of them hold down jobs, in fact—nor do they always live where many Americans think they live.

An analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts of the new Census data found that some states with the lowest overall poverty rates in 2013 also had some of the highest percentages of residents living in deep poverty.

Many of those living in deep poverty in Illinois work a year-round job. And despite social programs aimed at creating a safety net for the young, the faces of an alarming number of the poorest belong to children.

The Chicago Reporter examined data from Chicago and found:

  • 11 percent—or 287,443—of city residents live in deep poverty
  • 53 percent are African-American
  • One third—or 63,409—of working-age people (16 or older) had a year-round job yet still lived in deep poverty
  • Nearly one-third—or 90,480—of people in deep poverty are children

Nationwide, Mississippi had the highest poverty rate among states (24 percent), followed by New Mexico (22 percent). Both states also had the highest percentage of the population below 125 percent of the poverty level: 30 percent in Mississippi; 28 percent in New Mexico. About one in 10 people in both states had incomes less than 50 percent of the poverty level.

Digging into the numbers reveals that all is not what it seems in some states.

Pew’s analysis found an example of that in Maryland. The state had a significantly lower percentage of people living in poverty—13 percent, compared to 21 percent nationwide. That’s the third-lowest percentage among the states and the District of Columbia.

Yet a high percentage of Maryland’s low-income residents were living in the deepest poverty—nearly 38 percent, the highest among the states (though lower than D.C.)

“The persistence of deep poverty in states that have been relatively successful in reducing their overall poverty rates is a vexing problem, one that might expose serious shortcomings in the country’s safety net,” according to the Pew report, quoting economists and anti-poverty advocates.

The report offers both bad news and good news:

  • Three states saw increases in both the number and percentage of people living in poverty between 2012 and 2013. New Jersey’s poverty rate increased from 10.8 percent in 2012 to 11.4 percent in 2013; New Mexico increased from 20.8 percent to 21.9 percent, and Washington increased from 13.5 percent to 14.1 percent.
  • However, two states—New Hampshire and Wyoming—saw a decline in both the number and percentage of people in poverty. New Hampshire’s poverty rate declined from 10.0 percent in 2012 to 8.7 percent in 2013. Wyoming’s rate declined from 12.6 percent to 10.9.
  • Among large metropolitan areas, one of the lowest proportions of people with incomes less than 50 percent of the poverty level in 2013 was 4.2 percent in the Washington, D.C., metro area, while one of the highest proportions was 8.4 percent in the Phoenix metro area.

Contributing: Angela Caputo