CHICAGO — Chicago is most often associated with high poverty in Illinois, so it may be surprising that the five counties in the state with the highest poverty rates are all rural ones without a city larger than 26,000 people.
And the rural poverty rate is climbing at a rate faster than in urban areas.
Four of the five counties with the highest poverty rate are in southern Illinois. Alexander County, with 28 percent of residents considered to be living in poverty, is more than double the state poverty rate of 13.6 percent, said Katie Buitrago, director of social impact research center for Heartland Alliance, an organization focused on reducing poverty.
Pulaski, Jackson and Saline counties, also in southern Illinois, have more than 23 percent poverty. McDonough County in the western part of the state has 22.8 percent poverty.
In comparison, Cook County, the home of Chicago, has 16 percent poverty.
“We will not run out of work anytime soon,” said Buitrago.
She said the alliance studies the causes of — and solutions for — poverty, evaluates poverty programs, analyzes policy and provides services across the United States.
Although the poverty rate is still higher in general in urban populations than rural, it is growing at a faster rate in rural areas. From 2010 to 2015, the rate of rural poverty increased by 12 percent, compared to 5 percent in urban areas. In 2015, rural poverty was 9.2 percent compared to 14.1 percent in urban areas, Buitrago said. To get these numbers they use information from the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey, an annual survey on demographics among 3.5 million addresses across the United States and Puerto Rico.
Every year, Heartland Alliance focuses on a timely topic related to poverty in its annual report. Rural poverty was the focus in 2004. That survey showed that in rural areas, those living in poverty were older, less healthy and less active than those in urban areas. Child poverty rates are higher in rural areas than in urban ones.
“In rural counties, multiple generations are raised in poverty. Three decades of child poverty affects a whole generation,” Buitrago said.
Studies on rural poverty also show there are gaps in health care in rural areas. There is a high reliance on Medicaid, and high rates of teen pregnancy and disability where there is rural poverty. The 2004 report on poverty noted a lack of affordable housing in rural areas and fewer resources for the homeless, who are less visible because they often stay with friends and families in contrast to being seen on the streets in urban areas.
Rural areas also have few options for public transportation and lower densities of services such as food pantries compared to those accessible in urban areas.
But there is some relatively good news in Illinois.
“We are really excited about Illinois getting a budget,” Buitrago said regarding the end of the state’s three-year budget impasse this summer.
The new budget does fill many gaps in services. But the three years without a state budget will have an impact on rural poverty, she said.
“It won’t bounce back immediately,” she said.