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Rural poverty presents unique challenges

By Dan Petrella/CU-CitizenAccess – Brenda MacPeek’s husband used to earn decent money as a long-haul truck driver, making runs all the way out to Colorado.  

But last September, the couple lost their home in Aroma Park, near Kankakee, because they were both out of work. They relocated to a doublewide mobile home in Ludlow, a town of 371 in northeastern Champaign County.

MacPeek, 55, recently took a job as a maid at a motel in nearby Paxton, but she only works a couple days each week. Her husband, Dennis, signed up with two temp agencies in Champaign. Sometimes he works 40 hours a week or more, but at other times much less.

To keep enough food on the table, the couple frequents food pantries in Ludlow, Rantoul and elsewhere. MacPeek said she doesn’t want to rely on public assistance as she has had to in the past when things were tight.

“I’d rather stay off (food stamps) if I can,” she said.

About 4,700 rural Champaign County residents live in poverty, according to the most recent census estimates. Another 8,700 earn more money but still face a daily struggle to make ends meet. Taken together, that means nearly 13,500 rural residents – about one-quarter of the population living outside Champaign-Urbana, neighboring Savoy and Rantoul – can be counted among the working poor.

Although not formally defined by the federal government, this group is generally considered to include anyone who earns up to two times the poverty threshold. That's about $22,000 for an individual or $44,000 for a family of four. These are people who, like the MacPeeks, have jobs but often require help to get by.

But getting that assistance is far more difficult for rural residents than for those in the urbanized areas of the 998-square-mile county. The majority of the 35,000 county residents who live below the poverty line – about 87 percent of them, according to census estimates – reside in Champaign, Urbana, Savoy or Rantoul and thus live near many government and private assistance programs.

The special challenges facing the low-income rural residents – whether they are living below the poverty line or are among the working poor – include: 

  • Fewer agencies providing social services and other needed assistance;
  • A lack of major employers and fewer job opportunities;
  • The absence of transportation options to access jobs and services farther from home at a time of high gas prices.

Champaign County officials are working to address the lack of public transportation in rural areas, but it has taken more than three years since the county learned it was eligible for federal funding to get the service up and running.

Officials say the delays are due to a complex planning process that involved coordination among numerous government entities on the local, county, state and federal levels. Currently, the service is only available to residents of one high-need area – the Rantoul Township High School District.  

Meanwhile, in the past five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office has made more than $62 million in loans and grants to low- and moderate-income families in rural Champaign County to repair or purchase homes. Most of the recipients “truly are the working poor,” said Susan Petrea, USDA Rural Development’s area director for East Central Illinois.

Petrea said her office’s mission is to provide services “assisting in keeping rural America vital and healthy, and helping with economic conditions,” including the housing loans and other programs that aid low-income rural residents and their communities.

“There are a lot of people who … will look down on poorer people and think that they’re not trying,” Petrea said. Many of those people would be surprised “if they saw how many people were, as I said, the working poor, people who are actually working – and working hard – and just don’t make enough.”

Petrea said the needs of rural residents aren’t always easy to see.

“It’s easy to overlook the poorer people; they become a little more invisible. And rural people will tend to be even more invisible than if they’re located in a bigger community,” Petrea said. “A lot of people aren’t aware of some of the poverty that does exist out around the county because they tend to think of Champaign County being wealthy because of the (University of Illinois) being here.”

 

More food pantries needed 

One of the more visible ways in which poverty manifests itself in rural communities is through hunger, something Jill Jamison and Rhonda Moore see on a regular basis. 

Both members of the Ludlow school board, Jamison and Moore helped start a food pantry at the local Methodist church three years ago. Held the fourth Saturday of each month, the pantry serves residents of the Ludlow and Gifford school districts.

“We just saw a need,” Jamison said. “Rhonda used to live across from the school, and so there were a lot of times that kids would come over to her house because they were hungry and they hadn’t eaten.”

On average, about 16 percent of Ludlow Township residents lived below the poverty level from 2005 to 2009, according to the most recent census estimates. But the more eye-popping statistic is the number of children in the local school who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches subsidized by the federal government.

About 84 percent of children in the school, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade, qualify for one of the two programs, according to state data. To qualify for reduced-price lunches, a family of four must have had an annual income of less than $40,793 – nearly double poverty level – during the past school year. For free lunches, the threshold was $28,665 for a family of four.

“The needs are really increasing,” Jamison said. “We’re close to tripling what we were doing the first year.”

Cheryl Precious, a spokeswoman for the Urbana-based Eastern Illinois Foodbank, said rural residents often have a more difficult time finding help than those in bigger towns.

“That’s not to say it’s not difficult being in poverty or struggling with hunger in an urban area. It certainly is,” she said. “But it’s much easier to access services, especially in a town like this where we have so many agencies. There’s a pretty decent network of social services here.” 

The food bank serves food pantries, soup kitchens and other programs in 14 counties in the region. To measure how well an area is being served, the food bank uses the pounds of food distributed in a county per resident living in poverty.

“At the county level, using that indicator, Champaign County is doing very well,” Precious said. But the rural areas of the county could use more attention, she said. 

In fact, of the more than 100 agencies in Champaign County that the food bank supplies, less than a dozen are located outside Champaign, Urbana, Savoy and Rantoul. That does not include food pantries that don’t get their items through the food bank. 

One such pantry serves four townships in the northwest corner of the county. While Brown, East Bend, Newcomb and Condit townships all have relatively low poverty rates, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people struggling to put food on the table. 

Sharon Tabor, 65, gets the call about a dozen times a month. She runs the Fisher Area Food Pantry, and her number is published in an ad in the local weekly newspaper. 

When people call for help, she meets them at Fisher United Methodist Church and provides them with enough food to get their families through the next few days.

“Even though we only serve 10 or 12 families a month, it’s worthwhile to do it just for that 10 or 12 families that they might not go to Rantoul or Champaign to get food,” Tabor said. “Now, I know some of them do, but it’s just handy right here in town.” 

The food bank’s main strategy for providing to under-served rural areas is its food mobile program, which brings a truckload of food to areas that otherwise don’t get enough. But distributions in Champaign County are rare. The program tends to focus on places like Ford County, which has only one pantry served by the food bank. 

The food mobile did make a recent stop in Rantoul at the Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County. The agency has its own food pantry, open every weekday, but schedules a food mobile stop about twice a year to offer supplemental help.

At the most recent stop in May, more than 100 people, many from Rantoul but also some from surrounding smaller communities, lined up to get an extra supply of food.

 Many rural residents who need help getting enough to eat travel to multiple food pantries throughout the month. Brenda MacPeek, for example, was one of those who attended the food mobile stop in Rantoul. Two weeks later, she turned up at the food pantry in Ludlow.

For other rural residents, this also means regular trips to pantries in Champaign-Urbana.

 

Finding jobs and getting to work

Accessing food assistance is only one of many difficulties facing low-income rural residents in Champaign County. As the experiences of MacPeek and her husband show, finding work can also be a struggle.

The percentage of rural residents who are unemployed has remained roughly proportionate to their share of the county’s total population over the past 10 years. But workers in those areas often have fewer job choices nearby.

Nearly all of the county’s top 25 employers – comprising about one-third of all jobs in the county – are located in Champaign-Urbana. And that does not account for the abundant restaurants and retail outlets in the twin cities and neighboring Savoy.

This means many rural residents have to spend more time in the car to get to work. The average worker in Champaign-Urbana has a commute of less than 15 minutes, according to census estimates. By comparison, it takes workers outside the cities an average of about 20 minutes to get to their jobs.

With the price of a gallon of gas about $1 higher than this time last year, the extra travel time puts an additional financial strain on people who are already struggling to make ends meet.           

“One of the big challenges for people out in the county has to do with transportation,” said Lyn Jones, president of the United Way of Champaign County, which released a report earlier this year to identify major needs within the county.

“If you don’t have access to a vehicle in Champaign-Urbana proper, bless the (Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District), you still have transportation,” Jones said. “But if you’re in Thomasboro and you don’t have access to a vehicle, that’s a whole new issue. 

“If you’re needing assistance, human services, straightaway, you have a problem because those services are not available in Thomasboro,” she continued. “How do you get to Rantoul or how do you get to Champaign-Urbana where you can get assistance?” 

That’s a problem the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission is working to address.

 

Long road to rural transit

In August 2007, the county was notified that it was eligible to receive about $450,000 from the federal government to expand public transportation to areas outside the C-U MTD. Since then, transportation planners at the Regional Planning Commission have been working with the Illinois Department of Transportation to lay the ground work for the service. 

This lengthy process began with a series of meetings with transportation providers, agencies serving clients who need public transportation and other interested parties. Next, planners surveyed the community and social-service agencies to gauge where the service was most needed. The final phase involved choosing a transportation provider and working with agencies to develop contracts to provide transit service to their clients, which helps fund the system and triggers federal funding. 

Throughout the process, planners reported back to the Champaign County Board to receive approval to move forward.   

According to a guidebook the state’s Interagency Coordinating Committee on Transportation created to shepherd counties through the planning stages, the process takes a minimum of two years. In Champaign County, it took about three years to get the service up and running.

Eileen Sierra, who coordinates the human services transportation plan at the Regional Planning Commission, said this is not unusual for counties like Champaign. 

“It’s typical for a county that already has an urban (public transportation) system in place to take a little longer,” she said. 

Macon County, home to the Decatur Public Transit System, took about the same amount of time to get its rural system running.  

In these situations, additional agreements must be worked out between the new program and the existing mass transit system to avoid duplicating services. 

Last fall, the Champaign County selected CRIS Rural Transit, a company that has been providing transportation service in Vermilion County for 25 years, to begin providing a public transportation option for rural residents of Champaign County. 

Starting in late February, the service was made available to residents of the Rantoul Township High School District, which includes Rantoul, Thomasboro, Ludlow, Gifford and surrounding areas. Planners chose that area because surveys showed a large number of residents needing access to affordable transportation. (Story continues below)

CRIS Rural Transit service area

As more funding becomes available, officials hope to expand the service throughout the county.

By calling 48 hours in advance, residents of the area can schedule a curb-to-curb ride to anywhere in Champaign County from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Rides within the school district area are $2 each way, and rides outside the area are $5. All rides for those over 60 or for people with disabilities are $2. Children 12 and younger, who must be accompanied by an adult, ride for $1. 

“We’ll take them anywhere they want to go,” Kathy Cooksey, associate administrator of CRIS Rural Transit, said. “It could be (to) a doctor; it could be to work; it could be to the beauty shop; it could be the grocery store. We do prioritize medical appointments first.” 

While the service is still new and promotional efforts are in their early stages, ridership has been growing steadily. In March, it provided 310 rides, or about 13 per weekday. By May, it had grown to 485 rides, or about 24 per day, a 56 percent increase.

Cooksey said there is some concern that the $5 fare might be too high for some potential passengers. But during discussions at a recent meeting of the county’s Rural Transit Advisory Group, members recommended giving the program more time to grow before making any adjustments to the price. 

Rantoul Republican Stan James, the County Board’s representative on the advisory group, said some members of his party might not support the service if fares were lowered. 

“You don’t want to give the impression to those that are helping out with the tax bills and everything else that there’s a free ride, like Mr. (Rod) Blagojevich was giving out,” James said at the group’s meeting, referring to convicted former governor’s controversial move to give senior citizens free rides on public transportation.

Despite the advisory group’s decision to maintain fares at their current level, it took two rounds of voting at last week’s County Board meeting to get enough support from GOP members to accept federal funds to continue paying for the service. 

On a recent Friday morning, one of the service's 14-passenger shuttle buses made the rounds to Rantoul to pick up three people who were headed to Champaign-Urbana, one for work and two for medical appointments. 

Joyce Jones, a 46-year-old mother of five, was on her way to work at Steak ‘n Shake in Urbana, where she’s been a waitress since 1989. 

“It was God answering my prayers for me,” she said. “My car’s on its last limb, and I was driving it anyway. Folks say, ‘When you gonna get you another car?’ I’m like, ‘When it stops completely.’ ” 

Jones began using the rural transit service in May after finding out about it from a friend in town. 

“Long time coming,” she said. “Should have been here a long time ago.”

 

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