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Champaign County's poverty rate nearly 19 percent in 2008

CHAMPAIGN – Poverty rates for many counties in East Central Illinois were up in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Champaign County's overall poverty rate, which is inflated by the presence of University of Illinois students, was 18.7 percent in 2008. A year earlier, the overall poverty rate was 18.2 percent. In 2000, the county's rate was 11.7 percent.

An estimated 32,595 Champaign County residents lived at or below the poverty level last year. No other area county had close to that number. McLean County, which also has a state university, reported 17,484 at or below the poverty level. McLean County's poverty rate, however, was 11.4 percent.

Coles County, also with a state university, had the highest poverty rate in the area – 19.2 percent.

The under-18 poverty rate in Champaign County was 16.8 percent. Several area counties had higher rates in that category.

Carol Elliott, the township supervisor for Cunningham Township (Urbana), said, "I'm not surprised at all" by the higher poverty rate in Champaign County.

"If you look at the schools and the number of kids getting free lunches, you see that it's pretty high," Elliott said. "We're able to see it here. We're getting more calls now for assistance. There are things we just can't do, but people call us for help with rent payments or with utilities."

"These numbers don't surprise us," said Scott Olthoff, a financial counselor at Salt & Light, a social services and financial counseling center in Champaign. "Salt & Light has been around since 2004, and every year our numbers have gone up."

Olthoff said that the number of Champaign County residents living in extreme poverty – defined as living at less than half the poverty line – was 12.2 percent, according to a study by the Heartland Alliance in Chicago.

Vermilion County's overall poverty rate declined in 2008 – to 14.6 percent from 18.6 percent a year earlier.

The under-18 poverty rate in Vermilion County, however, was 22.9 percent, higher than any other area county.

Under federal government guidelines, an average family of four was considered poor in 2008 if its pre-tax cash income for the year was below $22,025. A single person was considered poor if his or her pre-tax income for the year was below $10,991.

Nationwide, the poverty rate last year was 13.2 percent, the highest level since 1997. Statewide, the rate was 12.2 percent.

The highest rate in Illinois was Alexander County, at the southwest tip of the state, at 29.5 percent.

The lowest rate in the state was Kendall County's 3.4 percent rate.

The lowest rate in the area – and the 30th lowest rate among 1,055 counties in the Midwest – was Piatt County's 6.4 percent rate. Piatt County's rate among those 18 and under was 8.3 percent, also the lowest among area counties.

The tabulations, according to the Census Bureau, are one of the criteria used to allocate federal funds to local jurisdictions, including school districts.

Other area counties where poverty rates increased between 2007 and 2008 include: DeWitt County, from 9.5 percent to 10.2 percent; Douglas County, from 8.7 percent to 9.2 percent; Edgar County, from 12.9 percent to 13.3 percent; Ford County, from 8.7 percent to 9.8 percent; and Moultrie County, from 8.8 percent to 9.9 percent.

Other counties, besides Vermilion, where the poverty rate declined include: Coles, from 20 percent to 19.2 percent; Iroquois, from 11.9 percent to 10.8 percent; McLean, from 12.5 percent to 11.4 percent; Macon, from 15.9 percent to 13.5 percent; and Piatt, from 6.8 percent to 6.4 percent.

2008 median household incomes, by county, were: Champaign, $45,840; Coles, $38,377; DeWitt, $47,645; Douglas, $45,359; Edgar, $42,522; Ford, $51,313; Iroquois, $46,529; McLean, 58,474; Macon, $45,664; Moultrie, $48,447; Piatt, $59,515; and Vermilion, $41,292. 

 By Tom Kacich

The News-Gazette

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