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Many in Kane County still live in poverty after economic downturn

Volunteers Carol Ahmad of Batavia (left) and Barb Hoffman of St. Charles help a client Tuesday select meat and cheese at the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry.
Volunteers Carol Ahmad of Batavia (left) and Barb Hoffman of St. Charles help a client Tuesday select meat and cheese at the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry.

Within a year’s time, Pete Schaefer watched as the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s demand for services surged 44 percent.

To put that in perspective, the organization had helped distribute 1.8 million meals in the last six months of 2011. In the last six months of 2012, the organization had helped distribute 2.5 million meals.

“Unfortunately, the need is great, and it’s growing,” said Schaefer, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank. “In 2008 and 2007, [the economy] went down hard, and we’re just not seeing it recover.”

More employers appear to be hiring, but leaders of nonprofit organizations that offer social services believe it will take a while before some Kane County residents climb out of poverty.

In 2000, Kane County’s poverty rate was 6.7 percent, according to a report by the Kane County Housing Coalition. Six years later, the poverty rate hit 8.3 percent. Poverty rates climbed to 11.1 percent in 2010, according to the most recent Kane County Community Health Assessment.

According to the Social IMPACT Research Center – a division of the Heartland Alliance that releases an annual statewide report on poverty – living below the poverty line is defined by an income of $11,484 for an individual; $14,657 for a family of two; $17,916 for a family of three; and $23,021 for a family of four.

Liz Eakins, executive director at the Lazarus House homeless shelter in St. Charles, said people still are reeling from the economic downturn of 2007 and 2008, when people were “blindsided by job loss.” She said employment continues to be a challenge for many Lazarus House clients.

In fiscal 2012, which ended in June, Lazarus House served 488 individuals. That was down from 2011, when the organization served 525 people. In 2010, 464 individuals were served, which was down from 2009, when 607 people used Lazarus House services.

Eakins said last year, the number of women served increased by 33 percent, and the number of children served increased by 15 percent.

Women are tipping the poverty scales, according to the Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center’s Report on Illinois Poverty published in January. The report showed almost 42 percent of households headed by a female with children and no spouse qualifies as poor in Illinois.

Hunger goes hand-in-hand with poverty. Rita Burnham, director of the Countryside Food Pantry in Elburn, said the pantry served 490 people in February and 675 people in January, which she noted may have been higher because it has one extra week. She said she noticed an increase in clients when the economy turned, but it wasn’t as drastic in Elburn as it was in other areas.

She said another food pantry opened nearby in Sugar Grove within the past few years, which may have caused the Countryside Food Pantry’s numbers remain somewhat stable.

“We saw an increase, but we didn’t see, like, 100 more people coming every week or anything like that,” she said. “We’ve maintained. We didn’t have a huge jump, but I’m sure others have.”

Demand for services have more than doubled in the past four years at the Batavia Interfaith Food Pantry, director Linda Dahms said. On average, the pantry serves 370 families, or 1,400 people, each month.

Schaefer said one in five children in Kane County, or 30,000 children, will go hungry at some point this year.

In affluent areas such as Kane County, where the medial household income in 2011 was more than $66,000, Schaefer said most people might think of Chicago when they think of poverty.

“In Kane County, I don’t think we were originally set up to deal with hunger issues,” he said. “We’ve got transportation issues. Not all of them can get to our pantries. ... Even an issue like that severely impacts their ability to get food.”

There are signs that poverty may not be growing as rapidly as it had been during the Great Recession. Dahms said demand for services at the Batavia food pantry has slowed slightly in the past few months. And Eakins said she’s “cautiously optimistic” that things will turn around, adding she’s noticed more clients re-entering the job market.

“There are people who have found a new way of living,” she said. “They’ve downsized. Maybe they’ve lost their home and now they rent. They’ve started a new normal with lower pay, less benefits. But they seem to be finding their way and they’re doing OK, now.”

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