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Report: Child poverty in Illinois remains stagnant, despite economic recovery

S. Wray Clay of the United Way of Greater St. Louis, speaks during a presentation of the annual Kids Count report in East St. Louis.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

“We need to do something different.”  

That was S. Wary Clay's message to parents during a presentation Thursday of the 2015 Kids Count report at the Lessie Bates Davis Family Development Center in East St. Louis.

St. Clair County, which includes East St. Louis, has a 30.3 percent childhood poverty rate, the second-highest for all counties in Illinois. Nearby Marion County's rate is 30.5 percent.

“We have children who are not allowed to be children. We have 4- and 5-year-olds worried about food and how to feed a family,” said Clay, who serves as vice president for the United Way of Greater St. Louis.

One in five Illinois children live in families whose incomes fall below the federal poverty level, which is $24,250 for a family of four. Despite the state’s economic recovery, rates of child poverty have remained relatively flat since 2009, according to the report.  

In St. Clair County, the data also show a drastic racial disparity: more than two-thirds of children living in poverty are black or Latino.  

Despite these statistics, Clay said she’s hopeful. She said she sees services and programs that serve the poor finally starting to communicate with each other. She pointed to East Side Aligned, a new program that will work to coordinate social programs in the Metro East, similar to the Ready by 21 initiative in St. Louis.  

Barbara Fiese, who directs the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, said the demographics of poverty are changing. Child poverty is growing in rural areas and among children under six, and local governments aren’t always equipped to respond to it.

“It used to be that half the people living in poverty lived in Cook County and Chicago. Now we’re seeing [poverty] move into rural areas and in mid-sized communities, where there are less available programs to support families in need,” Fiese said.

“It’s harder to reach people. You don’t have as good of resources in terms of transportation, the number of programs and outreach, and sometimes people don’t even recognize that there’s a need in their own backyard.”

The data will be used by lobbyists during this year’s legislative session in an atmosphere of tense budget negotiations. Newly elected Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed steep cuts to funding for child care assistance and Medicaid programs.

East St. Louis resident Martha Young said programs are needed to teach parents how to take care of their children.

“Our children are sound but they are poor in what matters most, and that is love,” Young said. “We have to become actively involved.“

According to the 2011 Missouri Kid's Count, 21.8 percent of Missouri children lived in poverty.

Child poverty data for the state of Missouri is available online, but the group that tracks it has chosen not to release an official report this year, said Wayne Mayfield of the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis. He added that one will be available next year.