URBANA — More than one in five Champaign County kids were living in poverty in 2011, according to the new Kids Count report released this morning.
The county's child poverty rate nearly doubled in 12 years, growing from 12 percent in 1999 to 23 percent in 2011.
The child poverty rate in Vermilion County also grew in that same time span, from 19 percent to 35 percent.
Done each year by the nonprofit, non-partisan Voices for Illinois Children, Kids Count takes a look at the health and well-being of children in the state.
Poverty statistics are taken from U.S. Census data, the organization says.
"It's definitely alarming that it has gone up so much over the last few years," Beverley Baker, director of community impact for the United Way of Champaign County, said of Champaign County's increase.
Baker said many local parents are juggling two or more lower-paying jobs to make ends meet, leaving little to no time to spend with their children and no money left over for discretionary spending and leisure activities.
"It's more about survival," she said.
Child poverty and poverty in general in Champaign County tends to be hidden, says Brenda Koester, assistant director of the University of Illinois Family Resiliency Center.
"You don't see it," she said. "And the working poor, even more."
She talks of all the children at local schools on reduced lunch programs, and how hard many of their parents are working trying to stay afloat.
"More than half the kids in those (school) buildings, the families are trying to live on a mind-boggling small income," she said.
Jeanne Mulvaney, president of the United Way of Danville Area, said poverty is one of the most crucial areas of focus for the Vermilion County community. And everyone has a stake in it, she says.
"It seems a daunting task and it is," she said. "It demands that each of us from United Way, social services, schools, churches, business where parents work and parents themselves to all be focused on educating our children from birth through their later years," she said. "Education is the key to a better life."
The Eastern Illinois Foodbank added food pantries at three high schools last year, at Champaign Centennial High School and in Mattoon and Charleston, and is preparing to open a fourth at Central High School within a few weeks, said its Executive Director Jim Hires.
These food banks, which help feed the entire families of needy students at these schools, have been very successful, Hires said.
"We'll eventually move to middle schools and elementary schools," he said.
Hires said one out of four children living in the 14 East Central Illinois counties the food bank serves is considered "food insecure," meaning the child lives in a family in which the next meal is uncertain.
Food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, Hires said, and one way to eliminate it is through employment that goes beyond seasonal jobs, he said.
Some 40 percent of people who use food pantries have jobs, but their income hasn't kept up with the increase in living costs, he said.
Voices for Illinois Children said Kids Count 2013 highlights achievements and challenges in health care coverage, access to early childhood education and seven other areas, but also shows the recession and the state budget crisis eroding gains and achievements in many of those areas. Some examples the organization gives:
— Participation in state-funded preschool programs doubled between the state's 1998 and 2009 fiscal years. But in the last four years about 20,000 fewer kids attended state-supported preschool because of deep budget cuts.
— The state's child care assistance program serves 170,000 children of low-income working families a month, but the state budget crisis has made eligibility for this program more restrictive and the co-payments families make have gone up in the past two years.
Voices for Illinois Children President Gaylord Gieseke said Illinois is at a crossroads with difficult choices to make.
"We challenge Illinois to do the right thing and the smart thing: Build on our past achievements, tackle the issues facing children and families today and position us for the future," Gieseke said in a written statement.
More findings from Kids Count 2013
Median income for families with children (adjusted for inflation) from 1999 to 2011:
Champaign County: Declined 10 percent.
Vermilion County: Declined 31 percent.
Children's enrollment in Medicaid and related assistance programs, 2005-2011:
Champaign County: Increased by 45 percent.
Vermilion County: Increased by 29 percent.
State-funded preschool spots lost 2009-2012:
Champaign County: 12 percent.
Vermilion County: 26 percent.
State as a whole: 12 percent
Low-income student enrollment, 2011-2012 school year:
Champaign: 56 percent.
Urbana: 67 percent.
Danville: 76 percent.
Statewide: 49 percent.
High school graduation rates 2010-2011
Champaign: 81 percent.
Urbana: 84 percent.
Danville: 74 percent
Statewide: 82 percent