Clusters of frozen snow cleaved to the windshield of my car after a night of alternating snow and freezing rain. It took 10 minutes to de-ice the vehicle, breakfast was sacrificed, and I arrived at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital on January 22 just as the Lake County Community Foundation conference was about to begin. While hanging up my coat I commented to an acquaintance that I was starving.
Then I remembered the conference was about poverty.
It’s easy to think you’re starving when life gets in the way of a bowl of oatmeal. And in a town like Lake Forest, one of the wealthiest in the U.S., it seems improbable that anyone is food insecure. You can substitute most North Shore communities into that sentence — Glencoe, Kenilworth, Winnetka, etc.: How could anyone not have enough to eat in suburbs that show up on “Top 10 Richest” lists in Illinois and beyond?
But there are hungry people here: children, the elderly, working parents, young adults. Poverty rates in the Lake and Cook county suburbs of the North Shore as well as in Lake County overall have increased dramatically over the past two–plus decades.
In Lake County the number of poor people grew 151.6 percent to 64,400 between 1990 and 2014, according to Dr. Scott W. Allard, who provided the keynote speech at the Lake County Community Foundation’s Right Now in Lake County conference. He is a professor in the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington in Seattle. He began studying Lake County in 2008 for the Brookings Institute, and has made a career out of studying poverty.
Dr. Allard provided statistics compiled from U.S. Census reports, public program data, case studies, in-depth interviews with non-profit executives and other sources:
- More than 56,000 of Lake County residents are food insecure, including 16 percent of all of the county’s children
- 1 in 3 people experiencing homelessness in Lake County is a child
- 24,263 county residents live in extreme poverty
He drilled into the data at the request of DailyNorthShore for community-specific numbers: On the North Shore between 1990 and 2014, the number of poor people increased 124.2 percent in Glencoe; 47.9 percent in Wilmette; 36.9 percent in Winnetka; 92 percent in Kenilworth; 42.4 percent in Northfield; 156.4 percent in Northbrook, and 125.9 percent in Glenview. Among North Shore suburbs in Lake County during that time period, the number of people living in poverty grew 80.5 percent in Highland Park; 169.6 percent in Highwood; 172.7 in Lake Bluff, and 51.7 in Lake Forest.
The Federal Poverty Line is defined as a family of three comprising one adult and two children living on $19,337 a year. A family of that size living on $9,669 annually is considered to be in deep poverty.
Why are more people living in poverty in Lake County and on the North Shore? Dr. Allard said it is likely due to a combination of factors:
- Jobs: There has been a significant change in the labor market across the suburban landscape. For those without an advanced degree or training, it is much harder to find good paying jobs or enough hours in good paying jobs. Suburbs also have experience a loss of good-paying white-collar jobs.
- Immigration: While the vast majority of recent immigrants are working, the jobs available do not pay enough to lift families out of poverty. The question then, is whether we are seeing an immigration effect or whether immigrants are just grappling with the same economic challenges that others are facing. Dr. Allard said his sense is that the latter story – changes in economic opportunity at the low end of the skill/wage ladder – matters quite a bit.
- Other factors: Some communities may be aging and the rise in poverty reflects the rising number of elderly residents on low fixed incomes. There may be some migration of poor people from the city or other parts of the country. For many decades working poor families have been moving to suburbs in the search of better opportunity – that persists today. The collapse of the housing market post-recession likely plays a more important role in some places than others.
Just as there is no single reason for the increase in poverty, there’s not just one way out. One suggestion that came up at the Right Now in Lake County conference: aligning with communities of faith such as synagogues, churches and mosques.
“They are motivated out of faith” to help people, said Dr. Allard. “And they are where people turn in need.”
The Lake County Community Foundation is hosting a live webinar on Friday, February 16 from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Click here for information on how to register. Space is limited to 100 participants, but a recording of the event will be available later.
Here are several photos from the Poverty Awareness Day conference hosted by the Lake County Community Foundation on January 22.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOEL LERNER/JWC MEDIA