CHICAGO — Illinois' overall poverty rate is the same as it was a half-century ago despite scores of state and federal aid programs and a steep drop in the number of older people struggling to get by, according to a new report that examines how the state has fared since President Lyndon Johnson declared a national War on Poverty.
Almost 15 percent of Illinois residents, about 1.9 million, lived below the federal poverty line in 2012, about the same as in 1960 before Johnson's call to action, according to the report released Thursday by the Chicago-based Social IMPACT Research Center. It comes as the debate over the gap between rich and poor — and what to do about it — becomes an issue in state and national political races.
The stubbornly high poverty rate — defined as an annual income below $23,850 for a family of four — reflects, in part, a loss of manufacturing jobs and an increase in part-time-only and service jobs, as well as a high number of people still unemployed since the recession, said Amy Terpstra, the center's associate director.
"It's not 100 percent one thing or the other," Terpstra said. "But you used to be able to come out of or not finish high school, learn skills on the job and get a family-supporting wage plus benefits, pension and vacation. Those jobs have been diminishing [and are being] replaced with jobs that are lower-paying and less secure."
Among the report's findings:
• Poverty has increased about 3 percentage points for working-age men and women. About 9 percent of men lived in poverty in 1960, compared to 12 percent in 2012; for women, poverty increased from 12 percent to more than 15 percent in that same period.
• Almost 21 percent of children, or 1 in 5 under the age of 18, lived in poverty in 2012, compared to 16.5 percent in 1960.
• The poverty rate among blacks and Latinos remains highest among ethnic and racial groups. Poverty among blacks was 32 percent in 2012, down about 3 percentage points from 1960; it was more than 21 percent among Latinos in 2012, and about 21 percent in 1960.
• Poverty among senior citizens has dropped the most, with the rate for those 65 and older down from 30 percent in 1960 to below 9 percent in 2012, because of programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Even so, Terpstra said, the number of seniors looking for work has increased 40 percent since 2000.
• The number of Illinois counties with a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher fell from 68 in 1960 to 10 in 2012, while suburban poverty increased.
But the issue is complicated and nuanced, and the official federal poverty line does not provide a full picture of economic hardship, Terpstra said. For example, almost 18 percent of Illinois residents are above the poverty threshold but are considered low-income, earning between 100 percent and 199 percent of the poverty level. That means about one-third of state residents are struggling.
Many work but don't earn enough to afford basics such as utilities, rent and food, said Pete Schaefer, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, a 13-county network of food pantries. He said some lost full-time, middle-class jobs and are trying to get by on lower-paying part-time or temporary work, while others have given up looking.
"You know who's hungry? It's your neighbor down the street," said Schaefer, adding that the pantries have almost tripled the amount of food distributed in four years.
He said half of those seeking help are working or someone in their family is. Others include the unemployed, elderly on fixed incomes and homeowners who owe more than their homes are worth.
Terpstra said conditions have worsened steadily since 2000, amid a changing job market exacerbated by the recent recession.
Illinois' median household income, for example, was more than $64,000 in 1999, but about $55,000 in 2012. The state poverty rate has risen 4 percentage points in that same period, as living costs increased.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday asked lawmakers to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour and double a tax credit that helps low-income workers keep more of their earnings. Advocates say both measures could provide an important boost to those in poverty, but also help the economy because the poor immediately spend extra money on necessities.
Republican gubernatorial candidates have said raising the minimum wage could backfire by causing some businesses to eliminate jobs, though GOP hopeful Bruce Rauner has said he would support an increase under certain circumstances.
But other measures are important, too, said John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago.
He said the availability of health insurance through the Affordable Care Act should help many who previously would have lost Medicaid coverage upon employment. Now, if they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, they likely will qualify for subsidies to buy private insurance.
Bouman also supports more job training for adults, and amending the state constitution to adopt a graduated income tax, which would require those who earn more to pay a higher percentage of their income.
"Most people, I think, are supportive of helping people who are trying help themselves and of helping the vulnerable," he said.