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Thousands live on the edge of economic despair in county

After a day of wiping tables and sweeping french fries off the floor of McDonald´s, Kelly Gaddis limps home to the Courtesy Motel on North Vine Street in Urbana.

Gaddis, 53, cannot afford to buy a car or lease an apartment on the $8 an hour he earns as a lobby attendant at McDonald´s. He and his wife, who also works at the restaurant, rent a motel room by the week within walking distance of work.

He also cannot afford the company´s health insurance, so he hasn´t seen a doctor about a foot problem that causes him to limp. Asked what he does when he gets sick, Gaddis chuckles. "You hope you don´t. Or you go to the hospital and when the bill comes, you add it to the rest of them.'
 
Champaign County is home to a world-class university, chic new downtown lofts and more than 350 restaurants. It is also home to more than 58,600 residents '” nearly one in three '” who are impoverished or near poverty, according to 2007 Census Bureau data.
 
Every day, tens of thousands of people in Champaign County barely get by. Many work in low-wage, part-time jobs with no health insurance and no savings for emergencies such as on-the-job accidents, car repairs or workdays missed because of a sick child. They depend on government aid to buy food. Some live in pay-by-the-week motels or move farther from their jobs to lower their housing costs, but then have a harder time getting to and from work '” or finding full-time work at all.
 
An analysis of state and federal data highlights the extent of economic hardship in Champaign County. Among the findings:
 
'” Nearly 10,000 children '” almost half of Champaign County´s public school students '” qualified for free or reduced lunches last school year, according to an analysis of Illinois State Board of Education data. The students´ families lived at or near the federal poverty line, which is $22,050 annually for a family of four.
 
'” More than 10 percent of Champaign County residents lived in extreme poverty between 2005 and 2007. That means their income was less than half the federal poverty line. Statewide, 5 percent lived in extreme poverty, according to Census estimates.
 
'” Nearly 20 percent of Champaign County residents under the age of 65 were uninsured in 2005, according to census estimates. Statewide, 15 percent of residents under the age of 65 were uninsured.
 
The News-Gazette and the University of Illinois Department of Journalism is beginning an interactive reporting and outreach project to document the economic disparity in Champaign County and chronicle the lives of people on the edge.
 
The Housing Bind
 
Adam Hall´s family lives on the edge. The 28-year-old father of one worries constantly about having enough money to pay the bills, especially now that his wife is pregnant with twins and has been ordered by the doctor to stay in bed.
 
"I´m making above minimum wage, but I can´t get the hours to make a proper living,' said Hall, who earns $12,000 a year working between 25 and 30 hours a week at Blockbuster Video in Champaign.
 
He reckons more than 75 percent of his monthly income goes for rent and housing expenses such as electricity, gas, water, sewer, phone and garbage collection.
 
Households earning less than $20,000 annually in Champaign County make up 41 percent of the rental population in the county, according to 2007 Census estimates. (This excludes college students who live on campus or people who live in group homes or institutions.)
 
Rents in Champaign County rank high among neighboring counties, according to a 2009 analysis by the Heartland Alliance Mid-America Institute on Poverty, a Chicago-based advocacy and research organization. That´s because Champaign County has a higher incidence of unrelated adults living together, including college students, said Esther Patt, volunteer director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union. This drives up rents because landlords assume that unrelated adults living together will have a higher combined income, she said.
 
Apartment rents for June in Champaign and Urbana ranged from $400 for a one-bedroom apartment to $975 for a four-bedroom apartment, according to data compiled by the Tenant Union.
 
Hall, his wife, Crystal Bates-Hall, and their 4-year-old daughter just moved to a three-bedroom apartment in Rantoul because they could not afford an apartment the same size in Champaign, where they had been paying $650 a month to rent a two-bedroom house.
 
"Rantoul is the only place we can afford a three-bedroom,' says Hall, who will need the extra bedroom when the twins are born in September. "It´s less in rent, but more in gas.'
 
Many residents choose to live in towns where rents are lower, such as Rantoul. After Chanute Air Force Base closed there in 1993, investors bought up much of the housing on the base and began renting it, said Bill Zuehlke, assistant superintendent for Rantoul City Schools.
 
Not everyone can make such a move, however. People who work in Champaign-Urbana and don´t have transportation have to find housing here, said Lisa Vandermark, a housing counselor for the Tenant Union. She said credit problems prevent many landlords from renting to those who need it most.
 
"Even the shabbiest places do a background check and they have application fees, and you still have to come up with first and last months´ rent,' said Martha Storm Storey, a Champaign resident who said she recently lost her $8.45-an-hour job at Meijer after missing too many days of work because of illness. The 44-year-old lives with a friend because she cannot afford her own place.
 
A lost job can turn into an eviction and mounting credit problems, ingredients that force many into homelessness or to seek shelter at pay-by-the-week motels, where weekly rents can range from $200 to $250, depending on the number of beds.
"It´s a last resort,' Patt said.
 
Pay-by-the-week motels do not require credit checks, damage deposits or utility hookups, she said.
 
"With the economy the way it is, we´re seeing a lot more of that,' said Ted Keller, a clerk at Blue Star Inn on University Avenue in Urbana. Many families with children live in rooms with one bed, he said.
 
More people are seeking housing assistance as unemployment rises or work hours decrease, said Darlene Kloeppel, social services director of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. The agency offers emergency assistance to people who can´t pay rent or utility bills.
 
"Approximately 10 percent are people who never sought help from social service agencies before because their income was too high,' Kloeppel said.
 
Last year, the organization´s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program assisted about 5,200 households with one-time utility payments; this year, it had served more than 6,000 families by May 31.
 
Soaring Food Costs
 
In 2008, the consumer price index for food '” a government measure of the cost of food '” rose 5.5 percent, the largest increase since 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The price index for food is expected to increase 3 percent to 4 percent this year.
 
Hall said if it weren´t for government assistance and food stamps, "we´d be starving to death.'
 
Across Champaign County, families like the Halls rely on food stamps, government aid programs and food banks for sustenance. Between 1989 and 2006, food stamp recipients nearly doubled in Champaign County '” from 8,500 to nearly 16,000, according to Census data. The number of county public school students eligible for free or reduced lunches rose from 32 percent in 2001 to 44 percent in 2009, according to an analysis of Illinois State Board of Education data.
 
At Stone Creek Church´s weekly food pantry in Urbana, 469 people sought food on June 15, nearly double the number served on May 18, Director Angela Bradley said. "During the summer, it´s a peak time,' she said. "That´s because children who received free and reduced lunch are home.'
 
"We feed people who have decent jobs, who drive decent cars, yet who are having a hard time making ends meet and need help with food,' Bradley said. "They live paycheck to paycheck and if something unexpected arises '” medical bills, car repairs, spousal loss of job or hours '” it upsets the delicate balance. We see many people who are embarrassed that they need food.' She said nurses and construction workers have been pantry clients.
 
For the Halls, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program also helps to put food on the table. The federal program provides coupons for supplemental food such as dairy products, cereals and beans to pregnant women or mothers and children up to the age of 5 who meet income guidelines. To qualify, a family of four can make no more than $40,793. More than 25 percent of the county´s families make less than $35,000 a year, according to 2007 Census estimates.
 
WIC food aid is not just for the "poorest of the poor,' said Brandon Meline, a program director at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. Many professionals, Meline said, such as a teacher who is a single parent or an entry-level salesperson, also qualify for help.
 
However, many people without dependent children do not qualify for government food assistance because they earn too much. According to federal guidelines, a household of two cannot earn more than $1,167 a month after taxes to qualify for food stamps. Gaddis and his wife bring home a combined monthly income of between $1,200 and $1,400 at McDonald´s.
 
"You can barely eat, but if you make too much, you can´t apply for food stamps,' said Gaddis, who eats meals at McDonald´s, where he gets a 50-percent employee discount.
 
Downwardly Mobile
 
For many residents, low wages and high debt stand in the way of upward mobility, said Ruby Mendenhall, an associate professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Illinois. Mendenhall´s preliminary research on the earned income tax credit in Champaign County showed that only a small percentage were able to use their tax refund toward items that would improve the family´s financial standing, such as a down payment on a home or attending college.
 
One in seven individuals and families filing tax returns in Champaign County in 2006 were low-wage workers who qualified for the earned income tax credit, according to The Brookings Institution, a public-policy think tank. The credit was available to individuals and families who earned between $12,120 and $38,348, depending upon family size. Mendenhall found that nearly 40 percent of low-wage earners in the study initially saved some portion of their tax refunds, which averaged around $4,200. But the majority spent their refunds trying to catch up on overdue bills.
 
The tax credit "does help families come back from the financial abyss '” the sea of bills and the creditors calling,' Mendenhall said. "The little money that is left over, they use it for regular expenses and emergencies that come up.'
 
Credit experts recommend that people have three months of basic living expenses saved in the event of emergencies such as job loss, illness or car repairs.
 
"If people don´t have accumulated savings they can fall back on, it results in an impoverished situation,' said Valerie McWilliams, directing attorney for Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in Champaign. "Some people are choosing to borrow money either through credit cards or worse, payday loans, and aren´t able to work themselves out of that situation.'
 
The biggest problem, Mendenhall said, is the gap between wages in the area and the rising cost of living. And as the economy worsens and employers forgo cost-of-living raises, Kloeppel said, "the gap is expanding.'
 
A resident in Champaign County needed to earn $13.15 an hour or a family of four needed to make $32,000 a year to achieve a living wage, according to data analyzed by the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission in 2007. The organization defined a living wage as the amount needed to live without government assistance and spending no more than two-thirds of annual income on housing and utility bills.
 
But the average estimated mean wage for renters in Champaign County is $9.43 an hour, according to the 2009 report on poverty by Heartland Alliance.
 
On July 1, the state raised the minimum wage to $8 an hour, a 25-cent increase. The extra $5 a week will help, but it probably won´t be enough for Gaddis to rent an apartment or buy a car, he said. "It would be tight,' he said, adding that he´s not optimistic about finding a better-paying job. "Anything around here, about all they pay is minimum wage.'

By Shelley Smithson and Pam G. Dempsey

 
 

 

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