In the face of growing economic challenges, our local health and social service agencies are experiencing an increased demand for vital programs that provide for the most basic of needs—food, shelter and clothing. With an unsteady future in unemployment rates, the need for employment counseling and training is also expected to increase.
Currently, the Heart of Illinois United Way provides approximately $1.02 million to support these critical programs and services that include homelessness prevention, emergency shelters, transitional housing, food pantries and many other services that support basic needs. The Human Service Center, which operates the local information and referral phone line, reported a 16.3-percent increase in requests for help when comparing the last six months of 2007 to the last six months of 2008. The largest of these requests is for food assistance, followed by rent and clothing requests.
Our 2008 Community Assessment of the population in Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Marshall, Putnam and Stark counties also points towards these trends. In 2006, 11 percent of the region’s population was living in poverty. While this poverty rate reflects a slight increase of one percent from 2005, it still means that more than 3,740 area residents moved into poverty between 2005 and 2006. Poverty disproportionately affects our children and youth. From 2003 to 2006, children under the age of five living in poverty increased from 12 percent to more than 23 percent in 2006, representing a 100-percent increase.
The Illinois State Board of Education estimates that each time a child changes schools, the student loses four to six months of academic development. For the 2007-2008 school year, our regional schools reported 647 cases of homeless students. Furthermore, low-income students come from homes that receive public aid, live in institutions for neglected or delinquent children, or are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Three of our region’s school districts have more than 70 percent of their students living in this low-income bracket, three more districts have more than 50 percent in the low-income bracket, and eight other districts have between 35 to 49 percent of their students living at this level.
Self-reliance is critical to reducing poverty and homelessness. The path to independence begins in one place—the home. The burden of obtaining housing affects all ages, and the lack of affordable housing is the main cause of homelessness. Locally, 14 percent of families earn less than $25,000. The gap between housing costs and wages becomes clear when the minimum wage is $7.75 an hour and the average two-bedroom rental unit in our area requires a renter earn a minimum of $12.40 an hour.
Bridging these gaps is critical to the health and well-being of our community. In 2009 and beyond, it will be more important than ever to collaborate and focus our efforts on assessing and finding solutions to these key areas of social concern.
For a complete review of statistical data on central Illinois, view our 2008 Community Assessment, conducted by Bradley University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, online at hoiunitedway.org.