In Coles County, Poverty remains but Food Insecurity Rises

In mid-December 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau released its latest official estimates of social and economic indicators for every geographic region in the United States.  These data, for the calendar year 2013, presents a considerable undertaking and are, by necessity, always a year behind.  Nonetheless each December we receive the most reliable vital information regarding the wellbeing of communities across the nation.

For four years now, I have used these estimates in my research to measure the incidence of poverty and food insecurity in Coles County, as well as a fourteen county region serviced by the Eastern Illinois Food Bank in which Coles County is served.  Each year when I collect and analyze these data, I am initially hopefully that the estimates of the level of impoverishment and risk for hunger will abate; but this year, like the previous, this is not fully the case.

Current estimates show that 22 percent, over 1 in 5, of the current population of Coles County is officially poor, earning an annual income below the federal threshold of $11,490 for an individual; this depends on the composition of a person’s family, for example, a family of four has a poverty threshold of $23,550 annually.  This percentage has remained unchanged from the previous estimates, which is the relative bright spot in an otherwise concerning collection of data.

Also of note, 13 percent of all families, and 22.5 percent of families with children under the age of eighteen are officially poor; each of these marginally increased by roughly one percentage point from previous estimates.

However, while the incidence of poverty remained relatively flat, the more concerning trend is reflected by the percent of individuals and families at-risk of food insecurity—the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire adequate foods in socially accepted ways.  More basic, it is the increased risk of not knowing from where your next meal may come, and if so, that it is nutritionally sufficient.  The annual income for this level of risk, used widely in practice and research, is above that of official poverty, at 185 percent of a poverty income for an individual or family (1.85 times the annual income used in the federal poverty threshold).

The most recent estimates show that 42.5 percent, well over 2 in 5 individuals are at-risk, 31.1 percent of all families are insecure, and 46.5 percent of all families with children under the age of eighteen are challenged daily to have adequate meals.  Each of these increased multiple percentage points from the previous year, and of most concern are families with children.

A safety net, albeit limited, exists for these families—mainly through targeted governmental services and resources for particular family members.  For example, school-aged children from food insecure families are eligible for free or reduced priced meals at school, though not nearly all who are eligible take advantage of this assistance.  Similarly, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk, yet again there is a gap enrolling eligible families.  Finally, and most important, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps, which bolsters the food budget of individuals and families making less than 130 percent of the poverty threshold.  SNAP, the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net, is the only food assistance program open to most individuals regardless of family status; SNAP can, single-handedly, address food insecurity.  But SNAP is also a popular target for program and budget cuts, the most recent threat coming is to restrict access for adults of working age without dependents.

But there is a gap between those who can access such services and the level of need for assistance.  Where WIC and the school meal program target families and their children living with food insecurity, SNAP eligibility ends at 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold.  Moreover, school meals are served to the student and the nutritional supports through WIC are provided as formula and food for the children; the adults in these families do not receive direct food assistance.

Based on my research, the gap in the percentage of families who are eligible for food stamps but are at-risk of hunger is 11.4 percent of all families and 15.3 percent of all families with children; just over 1 in 6 families are at-risk of missing meals, but unable to access government programs for support.

This gap, as much of my work is targeted, is filled by not-for-profit and private charities who coordinate food pantries, meals, or other needed services like health and educational supports.  In Coles County, we are fortunate to have a number of these agencies available, but given the rise in need and risk, they are feeling stretched to serve the poor and near poor.

The month of charitable giving between Thanksgiving and Christmas gleans much in terms of food assistance and opportunities for relief, but poverty, hunger, insecurity, and their outcomes are year-round concerns.  This is not just true for our youngest children and their families, but also for working individuals and family breadwinners, students enrolled at Lake Land and Eastern, an increasing number who are attempting to raise a family while taking courses.  There are also those with careers in service sector and municipal jobs, and those who have long passed their working years and find the struggles of limited budgets during retirement.

These issues are not specific to one group or one social condition, but shared across the county and East Central Illinois region.  I hope that readers will continue to be moved to help.  Monetary donations to organizations often translate to more robust benefits because, for example, local pantries can buy food at a discount from the regional food bank for pennies on the dollar.  But no matter at what level or how donations are given—canned, non-perishable food, volunteer time, community dialogs, or emotional support—I know through experience that those who live day-to-day at the margins of our community will be grateful.  I also know that we are only as strong as least among us, and I hope that next year’s data can prove the tremendous strength that is possible for all of Coles County and East Central Illinois.


About Prof G.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Eastern Illinois University

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