By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
Quincy-based agencies that serve the needy say anecdotal evidence supports a new study that shows one in three Illinois residents are living in or near the poverty level.
"The number of people we serve at the Madonna House Food Pantry definitely has increased from a few years ago. In 2007 we served 3,759 individuals and in 2012 we served 6,865," said Megan Flamm, Madonna House homeless prevention advocate.
Mark Geissler, program manager for Horizons soup kitchen and food pantry at 701 Hampshire, said the soup kitchen served 3,000 more meals last year than it did in 2011 and saw 1,500 more individuals seek assistance.
"There's no one demographic that's being afflicted. It's very broad. Maybe seniors are hit a little bit harder. And I hear a lot of people saying they lost jobs," Geissler said.
Quincy Public Schools has its own statistics, with five schools where 71 percent to 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Three other schools have 32 to 44 percent who qualify.
Social IMPACT Research Center of Chicago released a report Wednesday indicating that more than 1.9 million Illinoisans -- 15 percent of the state's population -- live in poverty. That is up from 12 percent in 2007 when the recession began. Another 2.2 million Illinoisians -- 18 percent of the population -- are close to the poverty level, compared to 16.2 percent in 2007.
"It really is kind of shocking that a full third of the state is struggling," said Amy Terpstra, the center's associate director.
Poverty is defined as an annual income below $23,021 for a family of four. Almost half of those in poverty earn half that. A minimum wage worker's annual income would be $17,160.
Those considered low-income earn between 100 percent and 199 percent of poverty. The study is based on the U.S. Census Department's 2011 American Community Survey.
Advocates used the poverty report to call on Illinois lawmakers to increase the states minimum wage up from $8.25 per hour. Others have called for greater funding for homeless programs and expanding Medicaid programs.
Rep. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, does not believe raising the minimum wage is the answer because it will cause employers to hire fewer people or lay off some employees.
"The bottom line for so many of our employers is really tight," Tracy said. "I think the goal of social groups and people like me is to get people employed."
In reference to the expansion of Medicaid or other programs, Tracy said most Illinois social programs are geared toward people making 1.5 times the poverty level. She does not believe the financially-strapped state can boost that spending.
Terpstra said near-poor residents often hold low-wage jobs with too few hours and no health benefits, yet don't qualify for state or federal assistance. She said someone generally must make twice the poverty level to make ends meet without assistance. In Illinois, that amount is higher because the state's cost of living is higher, especially in the Chicago area.
Other indicators of poverty appear to support the survey. The number of food stamp recipients increased 19 percent during the recent recession, and has increased an additional 41 percent since it ended in June 2009.
Households served by the state's emergency food program spiked from 2.27 million in fiscal year 2009 to almost 3 million in 2012, although the amount of food distributed in those years was about the same, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.
The state's unemployment rate has fallen, but remains stubbornly high at 8.7 percent for November. Many of the new jobs don't pay well, advocates said.
At the same time, steep cuts in the state's Medicaid program and to programs to prevent homelessness and treat mental illness are making the situation tougher for people already struggling to provide basic necessities, Terpstra said. People find themselves choosing between rent and food, between paying utilities and going to the doctor.
Women, children and the disabled are among those more likely to live in poverty. But the new statistics belie stereotypes that those struggling are single parents or the unemployed, advocates say.
"One of the big things is that people have jobs, but not jobs they can raise a family on," said Pete Schaefer, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, a network of food pantries that serve 13 counties, including some of the wealthiest Chicago suburbs.
Schaefer said some food-bank users are unemployed, but many are "making $9, $10 or $11 an hour."
"There is just no end in sight to the people hurting out there," said Schaefer, adding that demand has more than doubled in the last four to five years, with food banks in his network serving a half-million individuals a year.
Nateka Simmons of Urbana lost her job as an activities director at a skilled nursing center last February after back surgery that required months of physical therapy. She ended up going to food banks and applying for food stamps and Medicaid to help care for her three children, 13- and 9-year-old boys and a 4-year-old girl. Her husband's $9-an-hour dollar-store job wasn't enough to cover the bills or allow them to enroll in the company's health insurance plan, Simmons said.
"I never understood before how people say they struggled. I'd say ‘go to work.' But what happens when you can't work?" Simmons asked.
Last week, Simmons was hired as a driver at another long-term care facility at $9.75 an hour. Now she's waiting to find out if she made too much money in her first week to keep her food stamps, even though she's not guaranteed full-time work.
If the aid is cut, she said she must decide whether to "stay at this job or leave it because I can't afford" to pay bills and buy food. "It's a never-ending cycle of trying to get ahead."
Illinois ranks around the middle of states when it comes to poverty and near-poverty.
The Associated Press provided information for this story.