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Illinois may have more poor folks than we think

How many poor people are there in Illinois?

It depends on how you count.

Illinois is one of 14 states where a new way of measuring poverty reveals that more of our residents are poor. The Census Bureau recently put out a report (pdf) on the Supplemental Poverty Measure, a new way of calculating the poverty line that was released in 2010. By that measure, Illinois’ poverty rate is 15 percent, more than one point higher than the standard poverty measure, which says 13.9 percent of our citizens are poor.

The new measure is called supplemental because it supplements what we already know. The old-school poverty measure is the one used to calculate who gets government benefits like food stamps.

If you go by the current measure, the poverty line for 2011 for a family of four is $22,350. Under the new measure, the national poverty line for a family with a mortgage is $25,703 and $25,222 for a renter. For the Chicago metro region, those numbers get pushed even higher — $27,130 for owners and $26,595 for renters.

Why the difference? Because the new poverty measure takes into account a lot more variables than the old one.

The standard poverty measure was developed in the early ‘60s .It assumes food costs to be about a third of a family’s budget, so it takes what it costs to feed a family the bare necessities and multiplies it by three.

That made sense when food was the greatest expense a family faced. But that’s just not the case anymore. The current measure doesn’t factor in costs like transportation or child care, or take into account geographic differences in the cost of living.

Enter the supplemental measure. It figures in additional costs families today are dealing with, and it counts programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance toward a family’s income.

In a report released this month, the Census Bureau examined each state and compared the poverty rate calculated by the current measure to the new one. Ten states saw no significant difference between the measures. Another 26 states had lower rates of poverty under the new measure. And 14, including Illinois, had more poor folks.

So why is our poverty rate higher?

One probable factor is housing costs, says Dan Lesser, director of economic security at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Cities such as Chicago have higher housing costs which likely pushes our poverty line number up a bit.

Another might be our large Hispanic population, Lesser says, many of whom are immigrants. Immigrants have a poverty rate about seven percent higher under the new measure.

The new measure also doesn’t count one of Illinois’ biggest programs to help the poor: child care subsidies. Our rate might go down if it factored in the money we pay to help low-income families with child care.

Lesser says the supplemental measure isn’t necessarily better, but it is more complete.

“It gives us a little more information, which is always good, but it doesn’t do anything radical,” said Lesser. “The most important thing is that it does reward states that are taking measure to alleviate hardship.”

But despite the fact that it gives us a clearer picture of poverty, the supplemental measure won’t become the official measure any time soon. Doing so, says Lesser, would really shake things up when it comes to federal funding.

“It would be a huge political issue. You’d be taking huge amounts of funding away from some places and allocating it to others,” said Lesser.

So until it becomes politically palatable, the supplemental poverty measure will remain just supplemental, quietly lurking in census reports and my wonky blog posts from The Chicago Reporter.

This post was originally published on Nov 29., 2012 at Chicago Muckrakers.

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The poor should just save, right? It’s not that simple

Short on cash? A new study shows that it might keep you from saving for the future.

A series of experiments released in Science magazine took students from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Chicago and asked them to play games — Angry Birds, Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud. The students were divided into two groups — “poor”, where players were given less opportunity and less time to play the game, and “rich”, where players had more.

The experiments showed that the “poor” kids got shortsighted — more focused on the present problem and less on the future, and more willing to borrow from their future selves in order to make it in the present.

“It’s kind of striking that when you take people from the Princeton University community and put them in a situation where there is a shortfall of resources, they behave just like people who have been out of work for some time,” said Anuj Shah, a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago. “Is it something about being poor? Or is it something about being in a situation of scarcity?”

Shah says the results could explain why people use payday loans, even though they end up costing more in the long run, or don’t save a little bit of money or even make time to read to their child everyday. Compared to the demands of the present, investing in the future is vague and intangible. And for some, Shah says, current problems demand so much of their attention that there’s just no resources left when it comes to thinking about the future, even if they wanted to.

It’s an interesting study, especially in light of the common admonishment that poor people should just learn to save, just like the rich. Read more about the study in the Post-Gazette, or get the full study from Science Magazine.

This post was originally published on Nov. 9, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

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Poverty and depression: Which is the chicken and which is the egg?

Are you sad because you’re poor or poor because you’re sad?

We don’t really know. But a new Gallup Wellbeing report on chronic health problems shows that Americans living in poverty are nearly twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression, and more likely to suffer from a host of other ailments — asthma, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart attacks.

Two health problems on the list seemed to be diagnosed at the same rate whether you’re poor, middle class or affluent — high cholesterol and cancer. But Gallup notes that people in poverty might just be less likely to be diagnosed with either because they have less access to health care.  Previous research has shown that people in poverty are more likely to die if they’re diagnosed with cancer, often because they find out about the disease later when it’s progressed further. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that if all people between age 25 and 64 got cancer at the rate that affluent white people do, the number of cancer deaths could be reduced by 37 percent.

But back to depression.

“The interplay between depression and other chronic diseases is unclear, and the causal direction of the relationship between depression and poverty itself is unclear,” notes Gallup writer Alyssa Brown. “Depression could lead to poverty in some circumstances, poverty could lead to depression in others, or some third factor could be causing both. Regardless, it is clear that those in poverty are twice as likely as those who aren’t to have ever been diagnosed with a potentially debilitating illness and one that could be impeding them from getting out of poverty.”

A 2006 Northwestern study cited being poor or being a minority as major factors for depression, as well as being older, not having private insurance, and being unemployed.   The Urban Institute has shown that more than half of children being raised in poverty had moms who were depressed, leading to poorer mental and physical development among their children and even putting them at risk for depression later in life.

So if people in poverty are more likely to be depressed, are less likely to get help for their depression and more likely to pass on depression to their children, maybe there’s not just one chicken or egg, but a continuous cycle of being poor and poor health.

How do we break it?

This post was originally published on Nov. 7, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, In-depth Reporting

No 8s: Is not accepting voucher holders discrimination or avoiding red tape headaches?

This is the last post in a four-part series about a proposed ordinance in front of the Cook County board that would prevent suburban landlords from discriminating against low-income tenants. The series includes the story of a renter who’s faced such discrimination, as well as perspectives from property owners, realtors and a look at the political challenges facing the ordinance.

Dan Vollman grew up on Chicago’s West Side, raised by a single mom who had trouble paying the rent on time.

Now a landlord himself, he was more than willing to participate in the Section 8 program – the government subsidized program that allows low-income families to rent in the private market at rates they can afford.

“Back in the day, in the 50s and 60s, a divorced woman was ostracized. It was difficult for us to rent,” said Vollman. “I would have thought a subsidy would have helped my mother. She could have gone to school and learned some things to help her get a better job. As it was, she had barely enough time to work to pay the bills.”

Vollman’s been renting to tenants in the voucher program, often referred to as Section 8, for about 30 years in his buildings in Chicago and suburban Cook County. In Oak Park alone, he owns 159 units and about 40 are filled by Section 8 tenants.

“I have a lot of great Section 8 tenants that have become good friends,” Vollman said.

Suburban Cook County is the target of an amendment before the county board that would make it illegal to deny a person the opportunity to rent because their source of income is a Section 8 voucher.

Too Many Bureaucratic Hoops?

While landlords and realtors have complained the program creates hassles for them that cause them to lose money, housing authority officials in Cook County said that’s simply not true. Rich Monocchio, head of the Housing Authority of Cook County, said the perception that the program doesn’t run well is out of date. While apartments have to be inspected before a tenant can sign a lease and the first month’s rent is paid, that process doesn’t take weeks or months anymore.

“I will admit that the inspection process was onerous at one time,” said Monocchio. “I wouldn’t want to wait for my rent for two or three months either while some bureaucracy got its paper work together, but that just isn’t the case anymore.”

Monocchio said since he’s come on board at the housing authority, he has made many changes to ensure the program runs more efficiently. For example, he’s pushed to reduce inspection times to a matter of days and move records online so that landlords can see their results and show improvements they’ve made.

Ed Solan, head of the Oak Park Housing Authority, agreed that the program is well-run and easy to use.

These days landlords get their rent payments through direct deposit, Solan said, so they never get late payments. Solan added that if the program was difficult to deal with, he wouldn’t have over 200 landlords in Oak Park participating.

“Those owners who are participating with us probably have fewer hassles collecting rent than they do with their private tenants,” said Solan. “In many respects, our voucher tenants are more reliable in terms of rent-paying ability, and also I think that there’s lower turnover.”

But those facts haven’t changed everyone’s minds.

An Unpopular Amendment

“There’s a very vociferous opposition to this that’s really not based on the facts,” said Monocchio. “If you don’t like the ordinance, say so, but don’t hide behind falsehoods and things that aren’t true anymore. I think some folks that are opposing this are using the supposed dysfunction of the system as cover.”

Cover for what? Housing advocates say landlords can use the fact that it’s legal to turn away voucher holders to hide real discrimination based on race, familial status or gender.

Because families with vouchers are primarily black, many of them single moms, landlords in affluent areas don’t want to rent to them, said Rob Breymaier, president of the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance, which is behind the amendment.

“In many communities, because of the stereotypes that are out there about what a voucher holder is like or who they are, there is just a reluctance to take part in the program or refusal to take part in the program,” said Breymaier. “We know based on where folks live that it’s happening more often in whiter and more affluent communities than it is in other places.”

And that reluctance has real consequences for people with vouchers, said Breymaier.

“The bulk of kinds of jobs many voucher holders might be able to get –entry level jobs, service jobs– are in Northern Cook County, but most voucher holders live in Western and Southern Cook.” said Breymaier. “The fact that there’s this huge disparity between these communities makes it difficult for people to improve their life situation because they’re segregated away from opportunity.”

Breymaier points out that the Human Rights Ordinance already covers other sources of income and prevents landlords from turning someone away because they’re on disability or unemployment. This amendment would just add housing vouchers to that list.

Limited Living Options

Both Solan and Monocchio said their tenants have a hard time finding places to live, especially in nicer neighborhoods, often searching for several months before finding a landlord who will take them.

But landlord Dan Vollman said even though he likes and supports the program, he understands why some landlords are reluctant to take on voucher tenants.

“It’s more labor intensive. I think that turns off a lot of the other owners,” said Vollman. “If you were an owner and you had a choice – to decide whether you wanted to accept what they tell you to do, you might not. There’s different dynamics there.”

Vollman said the program works for him, but it might be more difficult for smaller landlords. He said many of his voucher tenants are on disability or are retired, so they don’t leave for work and tend to use more utilities. He also has a crew on call 24 hours a day, making it possible for him to comply quickly and easily with building maintenance. He has had problems with some of his tenants, but he says private tenants create problems too.

But overall, he’s glad the program exists, not just for him as a property owner, but for the good of society.

“Just because you’re poor and you only make X amount of dollars,” said Vollman, ”that doesn’t mean they should have to live in the ghetto or a place where they’re going to get hit over the head.”

This post was originally published on Oct. 31, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

Enterprise Stories, Housing Reporting, In-depth Reporting

No 8s: Commissioners divided over outlawing voucher discrimination in Cook County

This is the third in a four-part series about a proposed ordinance in front of the Cook County board that would prevent suburban landlords from discriminating against low-income tenants. The series includes the story of a renter who’s faced such discrimination, as well as perspectives from property owners, realtors and a look at the political challenges facing the ordinance.

Back in June, Commissioner Jesus Garcia predicted that his legislation to prevent landlords from discriminating against low-income tenants would become law within a few weeks.

But Garcia’s prediction didn’t come true, and the amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance doesn’t look likely to pass anytime soon.

“The legislation barely made it out of committee with only two votes in favor, at this time there are not enough votes to pass the legislation,” Celina Villanueva, outreach coordinator for Commissioner Garcia said Monday.

That’s why the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, along with about 50 other groups in Cook County, started their online petition. So far it’s gotten about 375 signatures.

“We wanted to show the commissioners that there’s broad support for the legislation,” said John Bartlett, director of Metropolitan Tenants Organization. “We’ve tried to pass it several times through Cook County, and there’s been an attempt on the state to pass it as well. But the realtors always have a strong lobbying arm to prevent it.”

The Illinois Realtors Association has criticized the amendment saying it would restrict landlords’ freedom to participate in a government program.

“Our association members are very concerned over private property rights. It’s what we deal with every day. It’s our business. The program was always sort of traditionally set up to be a voluntary program. You have an option to either be in the Section 8 program, if you wanted not to be, or you’re not in the Section 8 program,” said Jon Broadbrooks, director of communications for the Illinois Realtors Association. “We’re not against Section 8 tenants. We want to make sure the business practice is fair.”

But Villanueva says the issue is about discrimination, not about property rights.

“In regards to the infringement of rights for landlords, they can continue to rent to whomever they want, depending on the criteria they set forth in their selection process,” said Villanueva. “What they should not be able do is unlawfully discriminate against a potential tenant of any kind whether it be race, gender, familiar or source of income.”

While landlords complain that the program subjects them to unfair rules and regulations that hurt their business, Villanueva said Cook County has improved the process to make it easier to participate.

“The Housing Authority of Cook County has streamlined the process and has made it more efficient and quicker. Improvements have been made to ensure the process doesn’t take that long,” said Villanueva. “From start to finish, meaning that from the point of attending an orientation session to the renting of a unit to a voucher holder, the current process has been funneled down to a matter of weeks.”

When the amendment came in front of the Human Relations Committee this July, two commissioners — Robert Steele and Larry Suffredin — voted for the amendment, while Commissioner Pete Silvestri voted against. Two others, Deborah Sims and John Fritchey, voted “present,” meaning they were at the hearing, but did not vote for or against it. The remaining commissioners on the committee, Earlean Collins and Edwin Reyes, were absent.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle favors the amendment, said spokesman Owen Kilmer, but that it is on hold until after the County has tackled the budget issue.

“President Preckwinkle strongly supports the ordinance, and following the passage of the budget, will work with Commissioner Garcia and issue stakeholders on the issue to resolve any differences and pass it,” said Kilmer.

This story was originally published on Oct. 5, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.