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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 05:23 am

When it rains, it pours for the poor

New Illinois report examines causes of poverty

Mid-America Institute on Poverty of Heartland Alliance. 2008 Report on Illinois Poverty

Contrary to the belief of many in our society, poverty is not the result of laziness. Rather, a study published recently by the Heartland Alliance Mid-America Institute on Poverty finds that disability, job loss, earnings decline, having children, not finishing high school and living in a female-headed household are most likely to push to people into poverty.

Factors most contributing to these events include living in high-poverty neighborhoods, experiencing violence, incarceration, working less than full time, discrimination, teen births, wage declines and holding low-wage jobs, the study concludes. The current state of the U.S. economy only exacerbates the problem, says Heartland Alliance senior research analyst Amy Terpstra.

"We're all feeling the pinch. What's really important is that these economic conditions hit the poor first and it hits them the hardest," she says. According to the study:

— Nearly 20 percent of people enter poverty when the head of household loses employment.

— When a head of household becomes disabled, 6.5 percent of households enter poverty.

— Half of poverty spells begin with a decline in household earnings.

— Individuals in households headed by someone who did not complete high school face a higher likelihood of living in poverty.

— When a two-adult household becomes a female-headed household, 20.1 percent enter poverty.

— 8.6 percent of poverty entries occur when a child is born into a household.

Heartland Alliance's newest study builds upon the organization's annual Illinois poverty survey, released earlier this year, which provides an overview of the "unique moment of barriers and opportunities" in Illinois with respect to poverty in the state.

Specifically, write Terpstra and co-author Amy Rynell, "A moment when the state of Illinois holds the distinction of having the worst budget deficit in the nation for four years running. Yet it is also moment when people across the United States are talking about poverty as a threat to their well-being, when leaders are proposing solutions and when communities are taking important steps to decrease hardship."

Heartland Alliance researchers determined that 11 percent of Sangamon County's population lives in poverty, which is up 1 percent from the previous year, according to 2005 U.S. Census information. The 2008 poverty report also finds that 17 percent of people under the age of 18 and more than 20,000 people total are poor in Sangamon County — one of 11 Illinois counties with 20,000 or more individuals living in poverty. In addition, the county's 2007 unemployment rate of 5 percent also represents a slight increase over 2006.

However the study does contain some positive news for Sangamon County. The birthrate among teenagers, for example, is on the decline while the rate of high school graduation, overall and among the poor, has risen.

Other statewide findings include 1.5 million Illinoisans living in poverty, with 686,00 living in "the most extreme or dire form" of poverty, and more than a half-million Illinois children in poverty. In addition, the purchasing power of Illinoisans has decreased over the past six years and while statewide median incomes declined $1,547 between 2001 and 2005, the prices of gasoline, energy, medical care, food, housing and education rose sharply in that timeframe.

Heartland Alliance researchers conclude that poor families pay a tax rate of 2.7 times more than the top 1 percent of income earners and estimate that 87,918 homes in the state will be lost due to subprime loan foreclosures. Women, children, Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants and people with disabilities face the greatest risk of being in poverty, researchers say.

Despite acknowledging the state's worst-in-the-nation budget deficit, the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance has asked Gov. Rod Blagojevich to restore funding cuts to service agencies that work with the poor. But they applaud Blagojevich's establishment of a state Commission on the Elimination of Poverty in August. "The bottom line is that if we're not looking out for those who are most in need, then we all suffer."

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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