Jim Dey | Poverty's pain being felt all across Illinois

Jim Dey | Poverty's pain being felt all across Illinois

Fifty-two of Illinois' 102 counties face severe poverty issues, according to a study by a Chicago-based research group.

New data from the Social IMPACT Research Center at Heartland Alliance shows that poverty has increased from last year "when 30 ... counties were on the Poverty Watch or Poverty Warning lists."

In East Central Illinois, Vermilion, Macon and Edgar counties were placed on what Heartland Alliance calls its watch list, the middling rank between a satisfactory and poverty warning score.

Ford, Douglas, DeWitt, Moultie, Champaign and McLean counties avoided the watch and warning labels.

Ford, Douglas and DeWitt counties, each a small county with a population of less than 20,000 people, came out on top. Ford was given a 1 on a scale of 8 — with 1 being best and 8 worst — on the alliance's "well-being index score," while Douglas and Dewitt each received a 2.

Champaign, Moultrie and McLean counties each received a 3.

Heartland Alliance said the study showed that Illinois counties are "faring worse on worse on poverty, unemployment, teen birth, and high school graduation rates."

"The rise in the number of counties on the Poverty Watch and Warning lists only confirms what we at Heartland Alliance see every day: that Illinois communities need meaningful investments, economic opportunity and policies that work to bring equity to all communities. Our hope is that this data can help people working to making change in their communities understand the conditions on the ground and make better decisions about how to move the needle on poverty," it stated.

The disappointing results of the Heartland Alliance study confirm widespread perceptions about Illinois' declining status as a state.

Even as the national economy improves, Illinois' economy lags behind those of nearby states. As a consequence, there are fewer economic opportunities for state residents who need them most. Further, the state's effective bankrupt status makes it challenging to finance the social services contemplated by Heartland Alliance.

Cook County — Illinois' largest and most politically influential county — also was placed on the watch list, earning a score of 4 on the scale.

"A county receives a point if its rate is worse than the state rate and/or if it has worsened since the previous year. For each indicator, a total of 2 points is possible, and overall, a total of 8 points is possible. Counties that score 4 or 5 points are placed on the Watch List, and counties that score 6, 7 or 8 points are placed on the Warning List."

The organization said 47 counties were placed on the watch list and another five on the warning list.

Vermilion County, which has a population of more than 81,000 people, scored the worst among East Central Illinois counties.

It has a poverty rate of 20.9 percent, an unemployment rate of 10.4 percent and a high school graduation rate of 81 percent. Births to girls ages 15-19 were 67 per 1,000.

Some of the figures that were provided are not new. The agency cited numbers going back to 2010.

Rankings for each county included examinations of poverty, employment, education, housing, health and nutrition, and assets.

The study reports that Edgar County, which has a population of nearly 19,000, has a high school graduation rate of nearly 80 percent and a poverty rate of 14.4 percent. It said there were 33.7 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19.

The report said Macon County, with a population of 109,000, has a high school graduation rate of 85 percent and a poverty rate of 20 percent. It said there were 30 births for every 1,000 girls between ages 15 and 19.

The study said Champaign County, which has a population of 201,000, has a 85.5 percent high school graduation rate and a poverty rate of 23.4 percent. Its birth rate was 18 for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19.

Finally, McLean County, population 170,000, has a high school graduation rate of 82 percent and a poverty rate of 15 percent. Its teen birth rate was nearly 16 out of every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19.

The age of some of the data that was reported will, no doubt, raise questions about the exact state of the state. But its findings generally coincide with an image of Illinois as a state with vast swaths of its small-population geographic areas just making it, combined with urban areas with pockets of both great wealth and deep poverty and social dysfunction.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.