Taking On Poverty in the Suburbs | Elmhurst College

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Taking On Poverty in the Suburbs

journalist Barbara Rose leads a panel discussion on the extent, causes, and ramifications of material poverty in DuPage County
Panelist Connie Mixon (left) and moderator Barbara Rose

Candace King knows how hard it can be to alert people to the problem of poverty in affluent DuPage County.

“People are surprised to hear it exists,” says King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform. “The problem is that if you don’t know it exists, you’re excused from doing anything about it.”

King told an audience in the Frick Center on March 18 during a panel discussion on poverty in DuPage County, that the county’s climbing poverty rate belies its image of uninterrupted prosperity.  Though it may be better known for its upscale malls and pristine golf courses, DuPage is also home to persistent—if largely invisible—pockets of poverty. Nearly 6 percent of DuPage County’s population (52,000 of 930,000) lives below the federal poverty line, defined as a household income of $22,050 for a family of four. Add in the low-income working poor, and the number climbs to 16 percent. And, King said, the situation is growing more dire. Ten years ago, a busy month at the county’s welfare office might see 4800 applications for assistance. Today, the office deals with 12,000 applications each month. More than half are turned away, King said.

“These are people who are making too much to get help, but not enough to get by,” King said. By 8:00 each morning, King said, the line for applications is snaking out the door of the office and down the street. “They live in constant crisis, they often lack health insurance, and they are one car accident away from disaster.”

The situation in DuPage County mirrors national trends. The panel’s moderator, journalist Barbara Rose, noted that poverty has become a suburban phenomenon. Nearly half of the Chicago area’s poor live outside the city, she said. Nationally, the number of poor people living in suburbs exceeds the number living in cities. But because suburban poverty is less concentrated, it tends to be less visible. Rose’s report on poverty in DuPage County will appear in an upcoming issue of the College’s Prospect magazine.

King said that DuPage County is “just now developing an infrastructure to help the poor,” including services such as food banks and public health care. “But the pace of poverty is picking up faster than the county can respond.”

Constance Mixon, director of the College’s urban studies program, said students in her class on suburbia tell stories of once prosperous acquaintances who have taken to living in their cars and of homeless people living in tents in DuPage’s forest preserves.

Some of the facts of suburban life—higher costs of living, less access to public transportation—exacerbate the problems of the suburban poor, the panelists agreed. Of Chicago-area counties, DuPage has the lowest percentage of affordable housing, Mixon said, and efforts to add more have been consistently blocked by community groups concerned about property values and crime. The lack of regular public transportation also makes it hard for the working poor to get to good jobs, she added.

The rise in poverty in DuPage is part of a broader change in suburban life, said Robert Gleeson of Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies. No longer can suburbs be thought of only as bedroom communities, satellites of the big city. Instead, he said, people increasingly commute from suburb to suburb and from city to suburb. “This isn’t your mother’s and father’s suburbs,” he said. “It’s something new, a whole interwoven fabric, that we don’t even have the language for yet.”
Some innovations are helping to ease the crisis, King said. She pointed to Access DuPage, a health care network that provides donated services for low-income uninsured people. Its membership grew to over 10,000 people last year. “But as the need grows, the challenge is: How do we scale up these services?” 

King said that it is good public policy to provide such services to the poor. “This is not fluff. We do it not just because we’re compassionate, but because it keeps people out of prison and reduces crime and saves governments money over the long run. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

The panel discussion was part of the College’s Poverty Project, a yearlong examination of poverty around the world and close to home, Inspired by the work of Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian theologian who received the College’s highest honor, the Niebuhr Medal, last year, the project includes lectures, film series, service experiences and other opportunities to understand and alleviate poverty.

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