The changing geography of poverty in Illinois and across the country.

By Irene Jagla

I’m greeted by warm air and the smell of coffee and breakfast food as I step inside JOURNEYS, in the Chicago suburb of Palatine. The social service agency sits on a busy Route 14 industrial lot, and the colorful stripes across its brick walls make its exterior stand out from the other squat, gray buildings that line the road. It’s just before 9 a.m., and the main room, called the HOPE Center, is packed with about forty guests sitting at three long buffet tables as they wait for services—case management, a visit to the food pantry or clothing closet, or a turn in the shower or laundry room. It’s a scene not usually associated with suburban life, but, according to the staff at JOURNEYS, it’s become more common in Palatine and other Chicago suburbs over the past several years.

In the suburban counties surrounding Chicago—Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage, Will, and Cook, which contains Chicago—McMansions and new subdivision developments are separated from trailer parks and section 8 apartments by small tracts of prairie or farmland. It’s common to see multiple cars parked outside one home as families double up to save on rent or mortgage payments. The hidden nature of low-income housing arrangements, scattered between the well-manicured lawns and backyard pools of wealthier neighborhoods, perpetuates the myth that poverty doesn’t exist in the Chicago suburbs. But it does, and it’s a trend with roots in the mid-2000s that continues to this day.

The Heartland Alliance released a report in 2013 announcing that, for the first time ever, an equal share of Chicagoland’s poor population lived in the suburbs and the city, paralleling trends in other U.S. metro areas and changing a suburban landscape that has historically been associated with spacious single-family homes, stable jobs, and quality schools. The most recent assessment from the Heartland Alliance, released in 2018, reported that nearly one-third of Illinoisans are poor or low-income, and that poverty continues to grow in the Chicago suburbs, particularly among women, children, and communities of color.

Chicago’s suburban population grew dramatically between 2000 and 2010.

“With urban poverty, people think of a guy under a viaduct holding a sign, but we don’t have that here. You have people who are working part-time but can’t afford housing out here and are living in their car,” said Suzanne Ploger, the director of development for JOURNEYS. “You have people who are saving up just a little money and spend a couple nights in a hotel just to get out of the elements. It just looks a lot different than Lower Wacker drive.” (Lower Wacker is an area in Chicago where many people without homes set up camp.)  “Just because you can’t see [poverty] doesn’t mean it’s not here. I always remind people that you’re a lot closer to homelessness than anyone realizes or is willing to admit. You don’t know what’s going on in your neighbor’s house. They may be struggling to pay their rent or struggling to pay their mortgage. It doesn’t take much. It’s a job loss. It’s a medical issue, a divorce, and suddenly your seemingly stable housing situation is not so stable.”

In February 2017, Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, testified before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee to provide information about the “changing geography” of American poverty. Kneebone’s testimony illustrated the driving factors behind the increase in suburban poverty across the nation: growing and diversifying suburban populations; regional housing market trends; the suburbanization of jobs; the economic downturn; and the prevalence of low-wage work. Kneebone had first recognized the trend of suburban poverty more than a decade earlier. While studying Latino mothers and their childcare needs, she noticed gaps in services in the Chicago suburbs. “I was seeing similar patterns in a lot of suburbs where the need was particularly acute because they were experiencing growth in the low-income population and they didn’t necessarily have a nonprofit or public service infrastructure to deal with it,” she said in a phone interview.

Chicago’s suburban population grew dramatically between 2000 and 2010, a combination of immigration from other countries and migration from the city. The U.S. Census county migration tool shows the movement of people from Chicago in Cook County to the surrounding suburban counties, which partially contributed to a population loss in Chicago of two hundred thousand residents over the same period. In the 2010 Census, Cook County was the only one of the city’s ten most populous counties to have lost residents since 2000.  (These trends began to change after 2010, when Cook County began growing faster than the surrounding suburban counties.)

At the same time, the population of poor people in suburban counties increased. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, based on the 2008 American Community Survey, DuPage County saw its population of people in poverty rise by 42.8 percent between 2000 and 2008. Kane County had a 54.2 percent increase, Lake County a 23.8 percent increase, and Will County a 64.1 percent increase. McHenry County had the largest increase of all: 86.3 percent. Poverty rates in all the counties have continued to increase since then, according to estimates from the 2017 American Community Survey. 

Some of the most helpful data for learning about suburban poverty may still be missing.

Sofia*, a client at Round Lake Park’s Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, a human services agency that has served forty-five hundred immigrant families in Lake County over that past year, moved from Jojutla de Jaurez in Morelos, Mexico to Waukegan, Illinois, a city just north of the wealthy enclaves of Lake Forest and Highland Park, in 1999. She told me through an interpreter that she had to pull her sixteen-year old son, who has autism, out of his Waukegan school because the school didn’t take appropriate action to protect him after a severe bullying incident. He now attends a specialized school in Lake Forest for half the day, and she receives a housing voucher through her son’s disability insurance. Sofia spends the other half of the day assisting her son at home with daily life tasks, like personal hygiene, cooking, and doing household chores.

It was difficult for Sofia to find a job that would allow her enough time to spend at home with her son, so she turned to Mano a Mano for assistance—a decision that took a long time to make. “Too often when people need help, they shut themselves down. But there’s always resources out there, so you have to seek help. There’s nothing worse than doing nothing—you have to find help,” Sofia said. Through Mano a Mano, she learns English, takes GED classes, and attends case management meetings that help her better advocate for her son’s needs.

Megan McKenna, the director of strategy and development at Mano a Mano, said in an email that immigrants often struggle with poverty because, although they have higher workforce participation rates than native-born U.S citizens, they don’t have access to the same benefits. “Our clients represent the working poor who are paying into safety net programs, but they’re not eligible to benefit from those programs,” she wrote.

While there’s a lot of data on poverty rates, wages, employment, and affordable housing in the Chicago area, some of the most helpful data for learning about suburban poverty may still be missing. Scott Allard, author of Out of Reach, an examination of disparities in access to social services in American communities, said in a phone interview that “one of the challenges here is the data you would need to really explore the causal factors behind what we observe are not readily available. Our data on mobility and migration is not very good…so it’s hard to know of how much of what we observe is actually people moving versus people becoming poor in place.” He continued: “I think most of it is changes in the economy, a growing number of new jobs added that just don’t pay more than twelve to fifteen dollars an hour. [But] it’s hard to find localized data on that.”

Suburban poverty is difficult to address. A lack of effective public transportation infrastructure, a scattered patchwork of welfare services, and sharply stratified approaches to discussing poverty at municipal and village levels are all barriers to solving issues of poverty in the suburbs. Varying levels of political will across diverse villages and municipalities also make it difficult to build lasting coalitions to advocate for the needs of low-income populations.

The Old Firehouse Assistance Center, managed by the McHenry County Housing Authority (OFAC) located in the rural suburb of Woodstock, sixty miles northwest of Chicago, is one organization that’s stretching its resources to address the needs of low-income and homeless populations in McHenry County. Sue Rose, who has been community service director at the McHenry County Housing Authority for more than two decades, explained the changing trends that bring people to OFAC: “Twenty-three years ago, the majority of our clients were single men, usually with drug and alcohol problems, or young single women with kids. What I started seeing around 2007 and 2008 was intact families—mom, dad, kids—needing assistance. Men who had good jobs and got let go; they’re sixty years old, and who’s going to hire them? So, my tasks changed to helping people who had never been in poverty before and didn’t know how to live in poverty.”

I spoke to several OFAC clients who had lived in the McHenry County area for most of their lives and become poor in place over the last decade, due to job losses and health issues. Anna’s* disability checks were not enough to cover her living expenses, and she heard of OFAC through a friend. “The people [employees and volunteers] here are great. They do their best. I eat lunch and breakfast, sometimes get my hair cut. I’d eat dinner, too, if they had it. They helped me find different housing options, and gave me names of place, but I’m doing it myself,” Anna said as she smoked a cigarette on a bench outside.

The experiences of clients at human service agencies in the Chicago suburbs reflect the reality and complexity of suburban poverty.

Another client, John*, spoke proudly of his daughter, a lawyer who graduated from the Ohio State University. He was excited to be on the housing waiting list after twelve years of living below the poverty line. “Megan [one of the assistant managers] is getting me paperwork for housing at Pearl St. apartments. I’m number four on the list,” he said. John joins nearly ninety other chronically homeless individuals that OFAC has assisted in finding permanent housing since it opened in 2016.

Aside from help with housing, the Center also provides mobile health care through the Family Health Partnership Clinic. Every Wednesday, two nurses set up equipment for measuring blood pressure, administering medication, and doing general health check-ups. Dave, one of the patients on the day I visited, said that the clinic has helped him get his health back on track: “I’m in my sixties, and when you get older, your body starts wearing out. I’m on blood pressure medication, diabetes and cholesterol, all that kind of stuff. These ladies got me on a program.”

Back in Lake County, Astrid Martinez, the program manager at Mano a Mano, has seen a larger number of clients in homeless situations over the past few years: “It’s difficult to get them on waitlists or even short-term options because there is such a huge need. Everything is booked through the housing authority and Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) of Lake County; either the waitlist is really long or closed,” she said. By mid-May of this year, Mano a Mano ran out of the Goodwill vouchers that usually last them an entire year. “We only give them out to people who really need it. There’s a lot of people who are struggling, whether its access to housing or transportation, or a lack of transportation that hinders them in finding a job.”

The experiences of clients at Mano a Mano, OFAC, JOURNEYS, and dozens of other human service agencies in the Chicago suburbs reflect the reality and complexity of suburban poverty. “Poverty isn’t just where you historically thought it is and it’s affecting more people in more places than ever before,” Elizabeth Kneebone explained. “The map really has changed.” ■


*Editor’s Note: some interviewee names have been changed to protect identity.



Irene Jagla holds a PhD in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of Writing from The University of Arizona and has previously published work in Rhetoric Review, South Seattle Emerald, Zocalo, and the Found Poetry Review. She currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Aloft, the Museum of Flight magazine. When she’s not writing about the aerospace industry or aviation history, she watches too much true crime TV and reads books about animal behavior.

Cover image of the Metra station in Palatine, Illinois. Photo by Sebastian Sierotnik via Wikimedia. (Public Domain.)

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