PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday September 15th, 2016, 1:39pm

Poverty Declined, Median Household Income Grew In Illinois Last Year

Poverty fell and median household income grew last year in Illinois, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. While experts were encouraged by the improvement, they cautioned that things are far from rosy in the Prairie State. 

Illinois was among many states where poverty decreased and median income grew last year, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

At the same time, Illinois was one of eight states where income inequality increased between 2014 and 2015.

Those were among the key takeaways from the local-level American Community Survey released Thursday.

There were 1.7 million Illinoisans, including 558,784 children, living in poverty last year. That translates into a poverty rate of 13.6 percent, down from 14.4 percent in 2014.

In all, 101,277 fewer Illinoisans, including 34,402 fewer children, lived in poverty last year compared to 2014.

"Overall, we're really pleased to see the poverty rate generally move in the right direction," said Kimberly Drew, project manager of economic security policy at the Heartland Alliance. "Both the rates of poverty and extreme poverty have gone down in Illinois, but there are still over 1.7 million Illinoisans that are living in poverty and 785,000 people that are living in extreme poverty. So the number is still incredibly high, and there are a lot of people in our state still struggling to meet their most basic needs."

Illinois was among 23 states that experienced a drop in poverty last year, according to the Census Bureau. No state saw an increase in poverty. Mississippi had the highest poverty rate, reaching 22 percent, while New Hampshire had the lowest at 8.2 percent.

The U.S. poverty rate was 14.7 percent last year, down from 15.5 percent in 2014, according to the American Community Survey.

"Despite the fact that we're seeing the poverty rate generally moving in the right direction, it sort of masks some inequities and rising income inequality here in our state," Drew added. "For example, Illinois is one of only eight states in the country which actually saw income inequality grow, and we're still seeing wide racial disparities persist on nearly every measure of poverty."

Dan Lesser, director for economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, agreed that many "cautionary notes go along with the good news that poverty has dropped" in Illinois.

The Illinois poverty rate still has not returned to pre-recession levels, he explained, and some 785,000 Illinoisans remain in deep poverty.

Additionally, Illinois continues to have "huge" racial disparities in poverty.

"Hispanics are twice as likely to be poor as whites, and African Americans are more than three times as likely to be poor as whites," Lesser said. "And we haven't seen a change in that disparity."

Lesser addressed the state budget impasse's impact on poverty in Illinois.

"It's not going to show up immediately, but over time the state budget situation, the stalemate, the failure to fund vital programs, is gonna have a very significant impact on many things that would contribute to an increase in the poverty level in our state's future," he said. 

"There are a whole bunch of things," he continued, "that have either gone without funding for the past year or have been severely underfunded that we think will contribute to, unfortunately, an increase in poverty in the future in the state of Illinois -- unless things change and we get a fully funded budget."

Meanwhile, real median household income in Illinois ticked up 3.7 percent, increasing from $57,478 in 2014 to $59,588 in 2015.

Nationwide, median household income stood at $55,775 in 2015, a 3.9 percent increase from 2014, the survey showed. Median household income was lowest in Mississippi at $40,593, and highest in Maryland, hitting $75,847.

Racial disparities, however, persist in Illinois when it comes to median household income, according to the data. 

"While white Illinois households experienced an increase in median household income, black and Latino households in Illinois did not see an increase," Drew explained, adding that the "increase in income inequality and the persistence of racial disparities in 2015 tell us that Illinois is really leaving low-income families and communities of color behind, and we still have a lot of work to do in our efforts to cut poverty in our state."

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