Poverty rate increases in Champaign County

By Josh Winters

Poverty is on the rise in Champaign County, which could have serious implications for the quality of education, housing and healthcare of its residents.

Using data from the United States Census Bureau, a new report from the Social Research Impact Center found that from 2012 to 2013, the poverty rate in Champaign County increased by 1.1 percent to 21.6 percent “You hear a lot about our state leaders wanting Illinois to be a great place, and often those conversations are really about Illinois being a great place for business,” said Jennifer Clary, senior research associate at the center. “We took a step back and asked the question, ‘What about being a great place for people, for us?’”

The center’s report used more than 25 metrics associated with poverty and hardship to measure each of Illinois’ counties and compared the state to others in the country. Clary said while Illinois should be one of the best-equipped states to improve the livelihoods of its poorest citizens, the report’s findings show the state may be falling flat. 

Clary said the high housing costs in Illinois is one of the most serious problems facing the state and is particularly bad in Champaign County. One-third of households in Champaign County are “severely rent-burdened.” This means more than half of their income is being used to pay rent, leaving them with little disposable income. The percentage of severely rent-burdened households in Illinois is just over 25 percent.

The decline of manufacturing in the midwest, Clary said, has been another factor that has contributed to rising poverty in some parts of the state, including Champaign County. 

“What we’re seeing is that the jobs cropping up in its place tend to be more in the service sector and have low wages, and overall poor job quality,” Clary said. “More people are falling economically behind.”

The report shows suburban poverty, more than urban and rural poverty, has experienced the most significant increase in recent years, which helps explain the increase in Champaign County. Clary said the decline of manufacturing has hit workers in these areas especially hard, as they have less access to public transportation than people in urban areas, which makes owning a car and purchasing gasoline a necessity.

This lack of quality jobs has a very close relationship to the poverty rate, Clary said. Fewer well-paying jobs means a higher level of income inequality, which comes with a wide range of problems. 

“We’ve seen that income inequality has cropped up over the decades, but really accelerated in the 2000’s and this definitely an issue,” Clary said. “Inequality has negative effects on the nation’s health, housing, education, a lot of the same issues that we’re looking at.”

The rising inequality in Illinois could have dire consequences for the state’s overall health, Clary said. Stagnant wages can increase the likelihood that low-income families will be stuck in state and federally-funded welfare programs with little chance of breaking free, and leaving them with little hope of upward economic mobility.

To combat the issues citizens of Champaign County and Illinois living in poverty face today, the Social Research Impact Center issued several policy recommendations for Illinois to consider, including increasing the minimum wage and support for rental housing subsidies, fund state programs to improve access to postsecondary education and the construction of affordable housing, and invest in enrollment programs for Medicaid and Illinois’ healthcare marketplace. 

Josh can be reached at [email protected].