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Census: Ill. poverty rate remains near 15 percent

ST. LOUIS – New U.S. census figures show that Illinois' poverty rate held stubbornly at nearly 15 percent last year, signaling what anti-poverty activists say is worrisome proof that any economic recovery has not reached those struggling with low income.

The latest federal data show that 14.7 percent of Illinoisans — 1.85 million people or one in seven residents of the state — were in poverty last year, down slightly from the 15 percent, or 1.88 million, in 2011. The national rate also remained discouragingly stuck at 15 percent — affecting 46.5 million Americans and marking the sixth year in a row the U.S. rate failed to improve.

For the past year, the official poverty line was an annual income of $23,492 for a family of four. The latest figures show that the median income for the nation's households was $51,017, also unchanged from the previous year after two consecutive annual declines.

Illinois was one of just four states where the median household income rose last year, while Missouri and Virginia were the only ones that saw a decline. That income level in Illinois rose 1.4 percent to $55,137, while neighboring Missouri's fell 1.6 percent to $45,321.

Amy Terpstra of the Heartland Alliance's Social Impact Research Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit that pushes for policy changes to help the poor, said the latest numbers partly underscore Illinois' need to raise the minimum wage. Gov. Pat Quinn recently revived his pursuit of that despite fierce opposition from business groups, which have argued that hiking the benchmark hourly wage would mean fewer jobs and even higher poverty rates.

"I think what it shows is that poverty still is at nearly unprecedented levels," Terpstra said. "Ultimately, I think it shows that the recovery has not trickled down to the people at the bottom of the economic ladder."

The U.S. Census Bureau's annual report offers a snapshot of the economic well-being of U.S. households for 2012, when the unemployment rate averaged 8.1 percent after reaching an average high of 9.6 percent in 2010. Typically, the poverty rate tends to move in a similar direction as the unemployment rate, so many analysts had been expecting a modest decline in poverty.

Illinois saw such a slight easing, coinciding with a drop in the state's unemployment rate to 8.9 percent last year from 9.7 percent in 2011 and 10.4 percent in 2010, when Illinois' jobless ranks were the highest since 1983, according the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Illinois' seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for July was 9.2 percent.

The breadth of Illinois' poverty on a local level remains murky, given that census figures released Thursday only focused on counties with populations of at least 65,000, which in Illinois number just 23 of the state's 102 counties. Those did not include most counties in largely rural southern Illinois, where high unemployment and poverty have notoriously deep roots.

In the Chicago metropolitan area, 14.5 percent of the residents were classified as in poverty last year as the region's median household income was $59,261, in both cases not statistically different from the previous year. In southwestern Illinois' St. Clair County, which includes long-suffering East St. Louis, 19.7 percent were below the poverty line in 2012, from 19. 4 percent the previous year.

Terpstra called raising Illinois' minimum wage — at $8.25 an hour, the highest among Midwestern states — "a key piece" to potentially easing the poverty, given that a person working 40 hours a week at that income makes roughly $16,000 a year. But boosting that benchmark wage hasn't gotten much traction in the Statehouse despite Quinn's continued push to raise it to $10 an hour.

Quinn, a Chicago Democrat who in 2010 campaigned on raising the minimum wage and mentioned it in his State of the State address in February, has revisited the matter recently as he seeks re-election. On Sept. 1, he told congregants at a Baptist church in Chicago "it's a principle as old as the Bible to help those who work hard to not live in poverty."

An Illinois bill to raise the minimum wage hasn't reached a floor vote and opponents including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce have fought it hard, arguing that such a hike actually would stoke poverty by small businesses with tight profit margins to cut their minimum-wage employees' hours or their jobs altogether.

"Minimum wage is a huge headwind against (small businesses') ability to run, be successful and profitable," Doug Whitley, the chamber's president the CEO, said Thursday. "Illinois already has one of the highest minimum wages. It's not like we haven't had some response to (the issue). The bigger issue has got to be, how do we create jobs."

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