The Surprising Faces of Poverty in Rural Illinois

While these are just stock photos, they represent the majority of people
affected by poverty in Bond County, Illinois.
  • 686,000 Illinoisans (11.5%) live in poverty.
  • In Bond County, the rural area where I make my home, the percentage is even larger.
  • The pandemic and recession will increase these numbers.
  • You can make a difference.

In 2020, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) held a summit to recommend ways to decrease extreme poverty[1]. For Illinois, this type of poverty includes, for example, any family of four living on less than $11,000 a year.

Approximately 11.5% of Illinoisans—686,000 residents—live in poverty. When you learn this number includes more than 300,000 children, seniors, and people with disabilities, does your level of compassion change? What about your sense of personal responsibility?

Do you think of poverty as a big city issue? While stories of poverty often focus on the woes of inner cities, a large percentage of people in rural areas face poverty. In Bond County, 14.5% of our neighbors live in poverty[2]—even higher than the national average of 13.1%.

Do you think poverty is more of an issue for minorities and people of color? Does it surprise you to learn that more than 87% of Bond County poor describe themselves as White[3]? When we look more closely at Bond County’s demographics, the largest group of individuals in poverty are young adult women from 18 to 24 years old[4]. The next largest groups are young men of that age and then elementary-age boys[5]. Poverty impacts the everyday lives and futures of local youth and children.

Illinois already provides many services for these individuals. IDHS provides money—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Additional services include childcare assistance, education, job training, transportation, food stamps, medical care, immigration and refugee services, literacy, vocational training, vocational rehabilitation, and more. All programs work to ensure that the poor who participate grow toward self-sufficiency if at all possible.

Economists predict the pandemic and resulting economic hardships will cause more people to enter poverty. At the poverty summit, more than 200 leaders and advocates discussed reprioritizing action around income supports, employment, healthcare access, and housing.  

IDHS Secretary Carol Adams announced at the summit that the state has finally eliminated the assets test from determining a person’s eligibility for programs such as TANF, Food Stamps, and Family General Assistance. The action sent a firm message that the state now encourages low-income persons to save, build a financial safety net, and collect funds for future spending on self-improvement. In the past, any savings would be offset by a loss of benefits relied on for basic needs like food and rent. Secretary Adams also announced an additional $500,000 of funding for the state’s Food for Families initiative.

Another poverty summit participant, the Illinois Commission for the Elimination of Poverty (ICEP) works independently to ensure that programs meet international human rights standards. The commission includes members from government and independent organizations, including stakeholders with interests and expertise in corrections, healthcare, commerce, aging, education, and more[6].

The eight key areas the ICEP believes can make a difference for Illinois’ poor include:

  1. availability of affordable housing
  2. adequate food and nutrition
  3. affordable and quality health care
  4. equal access to quality education
  5. dependable and affordable transportation
  6. quality and affordable childcare
  7. opportunities to engage in sustainable work earning living wages
  8. availability of adequate income supports[7]

In the area of income support alone, ICEP seeks to increase the cash grant amount of TANF, a change that has grown in popularity. A less popular but potentially impactful initiative seeks additional funds for diaper allowances of $30 per month per child under the age of three for poor families.

The ICEP has developed similarly creative and consequential recommendations throughout all eight of its focus areas. They know what needs to be done to ease the impact of poverty.

Illinois has the right ideas and plans to prevent and erase poverty. They need funding, however, or they will never impact reality.

The next time you hear that your municipality or township, county, or state plans to increase taxes, think of your neighbors who struggle with poverty. Yes, some people scam the system. Yes, government waste is a problem. Yes, the system has flaws, but the funding of that system protects many vulnerable people.

Like you, I wish I had more money to buy the things I want and need. But I woke up this morning in a warm bed with food in the fridge, clothes to wear, and meaningful things to do with my day. If you woke up in a similar situation, you have great wealth compared to the 686,000 Illinoisans who struggle in poverty—many through no fault of their own.

You and I can make a difference. Let’s do what we can in our local communities. Donate money, clothes, or food. Volunteer to tutor or help with job training. Encourage religious or social groups to do more.

But let’s also soften our hearts to the idea of helping the government agencies and organizations mentioned in this paper. Reach out to your political leaders. Let them know that you care about the poor. 

Also… maybe… just maybe… the next time you hear that someone wants to raise your taxes… maybe before you grumble and complain… you’ll remember the poor who live among us and take a moment to find out if the proposed spending might help change their lives for the better.


[1] Illinois Department of Human Services, “Reduce Poverty and Help Families through Landmark Illinois Poverty Summit,” 2020, IDHS, https://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=41322#:~:text=The%20legislation%20tasked%20the%20Commission,to%20quality%20education%2C%20dependable%20and

[2] Data USA, “Bond County, IL,” Retrieved December 12, 2020. https://datausa.io/profile/geo/bond-county-il#:~:text=14.5%25%20of%20the%20population%20for,the%20national%20average%20of%2013.1%25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Poverty.Illinois.gov, “Commission on the Elimination of Poverty,” 2020, https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/poverty/Pages/members.aspx

[7] Sarah Martin, “Illinois Commission on The Elimination of Poverty 2018 Annual Report,” September 2018, Illinois Commission on The Elimination of Poverty, https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/poverty/Documents/2018-Annual-Report-Illinois-Poverty-Commission.pdf

Published by ElizabethSargis

Say More Communication helps you say more to your customers, members, donors, investors, employees, bosses, communities, friends, family—whoever needs to hear what you have to say. We help you create a strategy, find the right words, craft powerful visuals, and then carefully manage your content to achieve the influence you want.

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