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.