The share of people experiencing poverty in the Chicago region was split evenly between the suburbs and the city as of 2011, a new study by the Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center shows.
The 50-50 balance is a drastic change compared to 1990, when about 66 percent of the region’s poor people lived in the city, while 34 percent lived in the suburbs.
By 2011, nearly 630,000 suburbanites were living in poverty, which is a 95 percent increase from 1990, according to the ”Poverty Matters” report. That increase far outpaced the overall 29 percent suburban population growth from 1990 to 2011. Meanwhile, the number of Chicagoans living in poverty remained about the same during that time period.
Children as well as every racial and ethnic group in the suburbs also saw a greater increase in poverty over recent years compared to those in the Windy City, the study found.
Amy Terpstra, one of the report’s authors, said the recent findings drive home the point that poverty is not just an urban issue.
“I think in a lot of suburban communities ... there’s a real feeling that poverty is invisible,” Terpstra said. “(There’s a) ‘it can’t happen here’ mentality. But the reality is poverty is increasing in the suburbs.”
The Heartland Alliance researchers compared poverty growth based on U.S. Census Bureau data for Chicago and suburban Cook County as well as DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.
The federal government says an individual who earns an annual income of less than $11,490 lives in poverty. For a family of four, the federal poverty line is defined as an annual income of $23,550.
Although Terpstra said the report's findings are shocking, she noted that researchers have noticed poverty increasing in Chicago’s suburbs from some years now.
Suburban poverty growth nationwide has also skyrocketed. According to the study, the number of suburbanites in poverty now outnumbers those living in poverty in central cities. The report’s authors say this national shift is caused by a number of factors, including economic decline, shifts in housing affordability and policies, growth in low-wage work and stagnating or falling wages, to name a few.
The state of Illinois could help combat poverty by increasing the minimum wage, making sure good jobs are available and promoting savings, Terpstra said.
Local leaders should also take into consideration two unique factors of suburban poverty. First, the suburban social service landscape needs to be expanded, Terpstra said, because service providers simply can’t keep up with the increasing need. Suburban transportation also needs to be looked at, as poor people without a car often have difficulties getting to a job and accessing social services.
But if the state really wants to get serious about fighting poverty, it should put its focus on the jobs situation, Terpstra stressed.
“Low-wage work has proliferated in the suburbs,” she said. “If we are wanting to be addressing poverty, we really need to be taking a strong look at the quality of jobs, [and] the wages that those jobs pay.”