50 Years Later: Report on Illinois Poverty

Key Findings

The report provides a reflection on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, a federal strategy to eradicate poverty in America. It gives an unprecedented look at poverty trends in Illinois in the last 50 years. On the surface, poverty appears to have changed very little—it is 14.7% in Illinois today, the same as in 1960. But this surface look masks both significant progress and major challenges.

1. Among the most striking trends and challenges is the fact that we are treading water or losing ground for workers, women, and minority communities.

  • In 1960, there was real concern about the working poor.
    • With minimum wage increases and other worker protections throughout the 60s and 70s, working poverty diminished.
    • But since 2000, the ranks of the working poor have swelled, and now 388,000 Illinoisans live in a household where someone works full time, year round but the wages are so low that the family can’t escape poverty.
    • Today the average monthly cost of child care alone ($1,469) exceeds the monthly earnings of a minimum wage worker ($1,430).
  • Despite dramatic progress in the last 50 years, minorities are still disproportionately likely to experience poverty and hardship. Racial disparities are caused by a mix of historic and current policies that create barriers to equal opportunity in a host of arenas including schools, housing, and employment.
    • Almost one third of African Americans are poor and more than 1 out of 5 Latinos, compared to less than 1 in 10 white Illinoisans.
    • Poverty rates for their children are even higher, with 44.6% of African American children and 27.8% of Latino children in Illinois living in poverty (compared to 10.8% of white children).
    • Poverty rates are in part driven by unemployment: Nearly 1 in 2 black men between the ages of 16 and 24 is unemployed, looking for work but unable to find a job.

    • And disparities in wealth are stunning: 30 percent of white Illinois households are liquid asset poor compared to 56 percent of minority households (don’t have enough quickly accessible assets or savings to draw on if income suddenly stops to subsist at the poverty level for 3 months).
  • Women are more likely to be poor.
    • Despite the fact that Illinois women have gone to work in droves since 1960 (women’s labor force participation in Illinois has nearly doubled since 1960, 36% in 1960 and 61% in 2012), women continue to earn only 77 cents for each dollar men make.
    • Women still more likely to be poor than men: 15.4% of working age women are poor compared to 12.1% of men, and 10.6% of senior women are poor compared to 6.5% of men.

2. There have, though, been distinct successes in fighting poverty in the last 50 years.

  • The advent and expansion of Medicare and Social Security dramatically reduced elderly poverty from nearly 1/3rd to well under 10%.
  • The Food Stamp program, now called SNAP, lowers poverty by 1.6 percentage points.
  • Refundable tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit lower poverty by 3.0 percentage points…6.7 percentage points for kids.
  • Furthermore, human suffering, which isn’t captured in a poverty rate, was significantly ameliorated. For instance, nutrition programs have virtually wiped out severe child malnutrition in America.

3. New poverty trends also command our attention.

  • The geography of poverty has changed
    • Entrenched rural poverty was a reality in the 1960s: 68 of Illinois’s 102 counties had poverty rates of 20% or more. Today just 10 do.
    • At the same time, urban poverty rose and that’s how we think of poverty today….as an urban problem. But even that too is changing.
    • The number of the poor in the Chicago suburbs almost doubled from 1990 to today and now half the region’s poor live in the suburbs, up from one third a few decades ago.
  • The rapid rise in criminal sentencing laws has also created more barriers to employment for workers.
    • 31,155 people were released from Illinois prisons in 2011, joining hundreds of thousands of other Illinoisans whose records represent significant barriers to getting jobs, finding housing, and accessing other supports.

There are a number of strategies and policies to recalibrate the next chapter of the War on Poverty to meet the modern face of poverty:

  • Increase Illinois’s minimum wage.
  • Protect state funding for human services programs that help individuals and families move out of poverty and stay out of poverty.
  • Invest in our children’s future by creating an Illinois Children Savings Account Program that provides a savings account for every child.
  • Prioritize programs and policies that provide for more regular access to preventive health services such as Federally Qualified Health Centers, prescription drug assistance, and preventive dental care.
  • Make jobs available to all who want to work by investing in subsidized and transitional jobs.