Latest Poverty and Food Insecurity Data
The U.S. Census Bureau recently released its latest official estimates of social and economic indicators for every geographic region in the United States. These data, for the calendar year 2015, are an aggregate average for data collected from 2010-2014; because of the magnitude of data collection, these estimates always are a year behind. Nonetheless each December we receive the most reliable vital information regarding the wellbeing of communities across the nation.
For the past five years, I have used these estimates in my research to measure the incidence of poverty and the risk of food insecurity in Coles County, as well as a fourteen county region serviced by the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. Each year when I collect and analyze these data, I am optimistic that they will show a decrease in both the level of poverty and risk of food insecurity in the region; however like previous years, this is not the case.
Current estimates show that 22.9 percent, over 1 in 5, of the current population of Coles County is officially poor; this is an increase in nearly one percentage point from 2014, which measured poverty at 22.0 percent. In the United States, living in poverty means that an individual is earning an annual income below the federal threshold of $11,670. For a family, the poverty threshold changes depending on the composition of the number of adults and children; for example, for a family of four the poverty threshold is $23,850 annually. In 2015, 13.7 percent of all families and 23.9 percent of families with children are officially living in poverty; both of these measures have increased from 2014 (from 12.1 percent and 21.1 percent respectively).
While the incidence of poverty increased, the risk of food insecurity for individuals remained flat—42.4 percent in 2015 and 42.5 percent in 2014. Food insecurity is 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 the official poverty threshold; the food insecurity threshold is 185 percent of a poverty income for an individual or family (1.85 times the annual income used in the federal poverty threshold).
These most recent estimates for individuals, 42.4 percent, means that well over 2 in 5 individuals are at-risk; further, 30.7 percent of all families (down slightly from 31.1 percent in 2014) are insecure, and 46.9 percent of all families with children under the age of eighteen (an increase from 46.5 percent in 2014) are challenged daily to have adequate meals.
Both poverty and food insecurity data are available in picture-form through this infographic.
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 is the most important weapon to fight hunger and target the risk of food insecurity.
Luckily, the State of Illinois, this past summer, passed Public Act 099-0170, which—effective January 1, 2016—will raise the income eligibility for SNAP from 130 percent to 165 percent of the poverty threshold. As the risk of insecurity remains high in the county and the highest in the region, this act will bring up to $60 million in federal funds to the state; I am hopeful that those individuals and families in need will take advantage of this new provision. Also, as I have written in the past of the gap in service eligibility, the gap in public assistance and risk has been reduced, but not completely eliminated.
Last year, when I posted my analysis of these estimates, I discussed my hope that the coming year would provide more optimistic and positive results. However, given what is now known, poverty is increasing and families, especially those with children, are in desperate need of assistance.
These issues are not specific to one group or one social condition, but shared across the county and the East Central Illinois region.
I hope that readers will continue to be moved to help. Charity, love, and support is not just a seasonal need, but a year-round ingredient to lift our neighbors, co-workers, and friends to our shared standard of living. 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.
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.