Act Locally, Please.

On June 30, 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report detailing the growth of the U.S. Population who are living in “poverty areas.”  As defined by the Bureau, poverty areas are any census tract where the percent of the population who live in poverty is 20 percent or greater; that is, 1 in 5 persons is officially counted by the government as poor.

According to the report, nationwide, there was a 7.6 percentage point increase in the number of people living in poverty areas over the past decade.  This is important because as our economy struggles to gain steam, the spatial distribution of the poor are more likely concentrated in areas where economic growth, social support opportunities, lagging health and educational services, and middle-income stability has long been absent.

Over the past three years I have been researching the spatial distribution of poverty and food insecurity in Coles County, as well as the surrounding East Central Illinois region.  Based on the most recent data available, as my research indicates, across Coles County 22 percent of individuals and 21 percent of families with children are officially poor.  Moreover, the county has areas in which the percent of the population living in poverty is well over 50 percent.

County-wide, considering the risk of going without food, over 40 percent of individuals and 19 percent of families with children are at-risk, each day, of not knowing from where their next meal might come.  That is, going to bed at night, these people and their families may not have breakfast the next morning.

Each of these indicators have also grown across the county in a greater proportion to the national statistics provided by the Census Bureau.

While these numbers should sound an alarm not only for our county, but for a state and nation as a whole, over the past several years our law makers have spent considerable time and energy rolling-back access to programs and services to aid in the safety and security of our most needy neighbors.  For example, in November 2013, the Federal government passed legislation slashing the level of food stamp benefits while restructuring and raising the bar for how families can qualify for these benefits.  Other important programs that have been targeted for cuts include unemployment insurance, social security, and funding for preventative health care.

Highlighting areas of poverty as well as the retrenchment of the social safety net is concerning, but it is also an opportunity.  While state and federal programs may be more allusive now and in the future, there is energy locally to addressing these issues.  In fact, when I write and give public talks discussing these issues, I emphasize the need to focus on developing, sustaining, and supporting a local safety net.  This is vital because we, as a community, are increasing the livelihood of neighbors and the resolve of our cities and county as a whole; “think globally but act locally” is a most vital truth.

While there are many needs within Coles County and the surrounding region, there are many amazing opportunities growing, too.  In the midst of summer, for example, when poor children are not able to access free and reduced meals at school, there is an important summer lunch program covering a majority of the county.  Each day Eastern Illinois University’s Office of Student Community Service in Collaboration with the Salvation Army executes the Food on the Move summer meal program across six sites in Mattoon, at North Park in Charleston, and at the Ashmore Community Park in Ashmore.

Additionally, with the Mattoon Farmer’s Market on Fridays and the Charleston Farmer’s Market on the Square each Wednesday, a new community Farmer’s Market is blossoming on Saturday mornings at 825 18th Street at the Coles County Department of Human Services Building.  While the other markets in the county are tremendous, having fresh, healthy food available more often is a positive step to connecting an important piece of our local agricultural economy to those who need more access to food.  Moreover, the organizers of the 18th Street Farmer’s Market have designed this weekly gathering as a community event bringing in more than just food venders, but artisans, musicians, and local businesses as well.  Finally, the organizers are in the process of obtaining the permissions and certifications for vendors to accept food stamp benefits from those who qualify and use this vital social support.

Local programs, services, and agencies—those that are informed on the impoverished conditions of their communities—are in the imperative position to sustain our collective livelihood, and we should support them.  Additionally, local services can and should seize the opportunity to honestly solicit and incorporate the needs of our most vulnerable and needy citizens to ensure their voices are heard.  The best social safety net is informed by those who actually utilize its services, not as a construction based on assumptions, projections, or stereotypes.

Coles County has a bounty of such entities, both governmental and privately run organizations, to continue to ensure that each of us gain meet our own potential as individuals, families, and as a community.  Our food pantries, homeless shelters, health care services, educational institutions, and community centers in places of worship and other entities sustain each of us, whether living in, near, or far above poverty.  Clearly, their importance is growing day by day.

As a call to action, we must continue to provide vital resources and work to reverse the growing poverty in our county and region; we are our most vital, important, and reliable resource.


Poverty, Taxes, and Debating Tax Policy

The Daily Eastern News has published an article looking closely at the upcoming general election, the views of candidates on tax policy, and local initiatives to implement a facilities tax for the public schools.  These are VERY important issues, and worth understanding completely before voting on March 18.



Food Insecurity Article in the Daily Eastern News

The Daily Eastern News, the newspaper on the campus of Eastern Illinois University, published the second in a series of article looking at poverty and food insecurity in Coles County.  Here is the latest article in the series: Food Insecurity Widespread in Coles County.

There is also an article in the print edition about the Hunger Action Team, a campus organization fighting food insecurity and poverty on campus and in the community.

I, again, am grateful to Michael Spencer for the self-imposed challenging task of writing about these issues.

DEN News 07-Feb-2014

The Daily Eastern News, the newspaper on the campus of Eastern Illinois University, is starting a series on poverty in Coles County.  Here is the first article in the series: Food Insecurity, Poverty Rates High in Coles County

I am grateful to Michael Spencer for the self-imposed challenging task of writing about these issues.

New Infographic for 2012

Using American Community Survey Data from 2008-2012, the latest CCPDP Infographic shows continued elevated levels of poverty and food insecurity, especially when compared to state-wide and nation-wide numbers.


CCPDP Copy Food Insecurity Copy 2012 (2014 Update) Combined (2)


One point detailed in this graphic is the large gap between 130% of poverty for those families who are eligible for federal food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the 185% level of income where individuals and families are still at increased risk of not having enough to eat.  over ten percent of all Coles County families fall into this gap, and for families with children, nearly 1 in 7 families – 14.5% – face increased risk but limited access to food assistance.

While more detailed poverty maps are on their way, this infographic represents the latest analysis of the most recently available data.

Enjoy, and please feel free to comment with your thoughts.






Upcoming Public Lecture


Professor Michael Gillespie to lecture on Central Illinois Poverty and Hunger

at Lake Land College

 January 15, 2014

Lake Land College will host Michael Gillespie, assistant professor of Sociology at Eastern Illinois University, on Tuesday, Jan. 28 from 1 – 2 p.m. Gillespie will present  “The Geography of Poverty and Hunger: The Case in East Central Illinois” in the Lake Land College theater.

Topics of discussion include:

• How statistics and social policies can be used to better understand the percent of the population that is poor and food insecure.

• Data description and GIS mapping in different areas of Coles County.

• How the presentation of statistics can help individuals to understand the east central Illinois region, more specifically Coles County.

• The process of collecting, analyzing, and using statistics for advocacy and applied work.

This event is free and open to the public. For more details, contact Stephanie Medley-Rath, Lake Land College sociology instructor at

The War on Poverty, Coles County, and Addressing Local Conditions

The year 2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of the “War on Poverty”, the federal government’s attempt to, in the words of President Johnson at his January 8, 2014 State of the Union Address, “not only relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Johnson, like so many politicians, bureaucrats, activists, and members of the general population, was not interested in a system of handouts, but for means which the poor could use to lift themselves out of poverty. Poverty was a personal, individual issue, explaining why interventions sought to address individual ‘symptoms’.

The poverty rate across the country in 1964 was 19 percent, but the percentage of poor persons fell rapidly through next decade to near 10 percent where, until the Great Recession, it remained relatively low. New programs, such as food assistance, employment programs, and health care countered poverty’s symptoms and, arguably, prevented an epidemic. However, after many of these programs changed or disappeared through the 1980s up to the 2007 economic downturn, the percent of individuals officially poor increased. In 2012, 15 percent of individuals are poor, which includes 21.8 percent of children under 18 and 9.1 percent of persons 65 years and older.

Yet these are national figures and, as the War on Poverty correctly aspired, poverty and its related issues such as food insecurity, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and health, are local, and best understood and addressed within local conditions. This was the point of Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, command central for coordinating and funding local action agencies at the front-lines of the battle.

The national poverty figures have not changed in the previous two years, but the situation here in Coles County could not be more different. The US Census Bureau’s most current Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE), the most efficient annual measurements of poverty for places such as Coles County, Illinois, which have a population lower than 50,000, shows 11,309 persons, 22.9 percent of all individuals are poor. Compared to Illinois (14.7%) and the U.S. as a whole (15.9%), Coles County’s poverty level dwarfs the state and country.

Further the percent of poor Coles County children less than 18 years of age stands at 25.5 percent, and 24.9 percent of school-aged children 5-17 years old are poor. Again, these figures are higher than the estimates for the state and the country showing the reality of poverty—especially childhood poverty—here in Coles County.

The most recent Census Bureau 5-year rolling estimates mirror these single-year trends: on average, the percent of poor individuals in Coles County from 2008 through 2012 is 22.0 percent, compared with 13.7 percent for Illinois and 14.9 percent for the country. Our county’s elevated 5-year average poverty rates of 12.1 percent for families and 24.4 percent for children also outpace state- and federal-level averages, but the percent of poor elderly persons 65 years and older of 6.7 percent is lower than Illinois (8.6 percent) and the country (9.4 percent).

Underlying these data is one revealing disparity in the economic conditions here in Coles County. The annual average unemployment rate in the county matches the country and the state over time, and, for 2012, is the same as Illinois (8.9 percent) and slightly higher than the United States (8.1 percent). However, having a job does not translate to a living wage; comparing median family incomes shows Coles County at $56,988, nearly fourteen thousand dollars less than $70,144 for Illinois and over seven thousand dollars lower than $64,585 for the United States. For households, these disparities remain: the median household income in Coles County, $38,088, is over eighteen-thousand dollars lower than Illinois ($56,853) and nearly fifteen thousand lower than the country ($53,046).

Often, persons and commentators who malign poverty programs and poor individuals and families argue that a lack of personal responsibility and individual initiative breeds dependence and a culture of reliance and addiction on government handouts. The War on Poverty, fifty years ago, was built on these assumptions. However, comparing unemployment and median incomes challenges these myths. In Coles County, individuals and family breadwinners are working, but for significantly less money than peers in the state and around the country. Rather, in this context, only 55 percent of poor households in our county receive SNAP benefits, half of these households have at least one wage-earner and half have children.

In recent months, federal funding for these food and nutrition services, as well as long-term unemployment benefits, has been slashed. They sustain, on a daily basis, those in our community in need—employed or not—but are now offering only insecurities. This is why programs and services—food pantries and kitchens, as well as shelters, re-sale shops, health and nutrition services, schools and school-based relief, and veterans and senior services, to name but a few—are of immediate and vital importance to our community. These programs, already stretched thin, do not offer handouts but services to relieve the impacts of poverty and aid in preserving the dignity of our most needy community members.

Self-sufficiency through employment is important, but having a job that pays a wage with which a household can adequately be maintained is another; employment is visible in Coles County, but the ability to support a family is still lacking. Where some commentators, both locally and nationally, write that the “war on poverty” has failed, perhaps it is high time to establish a new front in this battle, and do so locally in Coles County. This battle should focus on systemic and contextual change, rather than misguided individual diagnoses. To paraphrase President Johnson, we should fight to “not only relieve the social conditions sustaining poverty, but to change them and, above all, to prevent them.”


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