One in five living in poverty in St. Clair County; household income drops 10 percent in five years

News-DemocratSeptember 19, 2013 

AP GRAPHIC

One in five residents now lives in poverty in St. Clair County, and the average household income has dropped 10 percent in the past five years, according to the latest estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Census Bureau found about 20 percent of all St. Clair County residents lived below the poverty line in 2012 -- a 4 percent increase from the number of residents living in poverty in 2008. An estimated 13 percent of Madison County residents were living in poverty last year, which is about the same as five years ago.

Jerry Hasenstab is the director of Catholic Urban Programs in the metro-east, which provides local services to low-income residents. Hasenstab said he was not surprised by the Census Bureau findings and the amount of food distributed by his group's pantry "has gone way up" in the past three months.

"The number of calls of people living in motels because they no longer can afford to live in an apartment after losing their job, or worked two jobs and lost one, is definitely getting worse unfortunately," Hasenstab said. "I think for some folks the job market has turned around but there are just no unskilled jobs that can sustain a household. We don't have manufacturing plants or places that hire 200 to 300 people at a time. Even if you get an education at a four-year college in a specific field, it's still hard to find a job that sustains a family in our area. Everything's moved out."

Those living within poverty are resilient and struggling to survive for their kids, Hasenstab said.

"These are strong people, they have to be," Hasenstab said. "Other folks might look at them as failures but we're talking about generational poverty. They are doing the best they can with what they got. We offer them help but that's going to be down the line. It's a long process. Immediately, we are just trying to keep people's head above water."

The official poverty line in the past year was an annual income of $23,492 for a family of four.

Statewide, 14.7 percent of the population -- which is 1.85 million people or one in seven -- lived in poverty last year.

Household incomes fall

Households are earning less as well. In the past five years, the median household income dropped more than 10 percent in St. Clair County and about 4 percent in Madison County, according to the Census Bureau.

The median household income in St. Clair County has fallen from about $51,800 in 2008 to about $46,500 in 2012. In Madison County, the median household income dropped from about $53,800 to $51,800 in the same time period.

In the St. Louis region, the median household income rose slightly to about $52,200 in 2012. The Census Bureau adjusts those figures for inflation. In Illinois, the median household income rose 1.4 percent to $55,137, while Missouri's fell 1.6 percent to $45,321.

Rich Conner, chairman of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, said his organization is working with its partners in government and business groups to reverse the trend shown in the Census data.

"We are facing challenging times, not just in the metro-east but nationwide," Conner said. "Our area actually has done fairly well through the recession because of investment on major projects, mainly the Phillips 66 (Wood River Refinery) expansion and the Prairie State Energy Campus (in Washington County). In some regards, we have done better than some regions but we want to see more investment."

The Leadership Council is encouraging new business startups as part of its effort to improve the local economy, Conner said.

"We know we have a lot of innovative talent in the region ...," Conner said. "St. Louis is getting a lot of recognition about our exciting and growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. We are getting national attention of the entrepreneurial spirit in the region. We are trying to connect our Illinois innovators with that group that have resources, and just that interaction with others bringing similar ideas to the marketplace is very healthy."

The group also is marketing the metro-east's "tremendous" transportation assets along with lobbying for the expansion of Scott Air Force Base, Conner said.

Hasenstab said Catholic Urban Programs is working with other agencies to find better ways of helping those in poverty in the face of funding cuts from the state and federal government.

"Money isn't going to be the whole answer because there's no money to throw," Hasenstab said. "The resources in this area are just so limited. We have a job training program but unless people want to move away from their family, there's just nothing here. ... Folks are doing the work to turn their lives around only to find out there's not much out there. It's incredibly frustrating."

Minorities disproportionately living in poverty

Poverty affects minorities more than white residents in St. Clair and Madison counties, according to the census data.

About 40 percent of black residents, an estimated 32,270 people, are living below the poverty level in St. Clair County. The same percentage of black residents are living in poverty in Madison County, an estimated 7,000 residents.

More than 27 percent of Hispanics, or about 2,500 people, are living in poverty in St. Clair County. The Bureau estimates more than 15 percent of Hispanics in Madison County, about 1,100 people, live in poverty in Madison County.

By comparison, 10 percent of white residents, or 41,400 people, are believed to be below the poverty level in both counties.

"It impacts the black community more because some residents are already on the fringe economically," Hasenstab said, noting some minority families rely upon two sources of incomes to remain above the poverty line. "So it doesn't take more than a hiccup to really put them over the edge."

Hasenstab said Catholic Urban Programs has also seen an increase in the number of white residents needing help, especially in the Belleville area.

The percentage of residents in St. Clair and Madison counties receiving food stamps has risen as well.

In St. Clair County, the Census Bureau estimated 18 percent of residents received food stamps in 2012 compared to 12. 6 percent in 2008. In Madison County, an estimated 13 percent of residents received food stamps last year compared to 9.5 percent four years ago.

In the St. Louis area, about 14 percent of people were in poverty in 2012.

The Associated Press contributed information to this article.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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