Poverty Remains Major Obstacle to Illinois' Youngest; Minorities Hit Hardest

The youngest Illinoisans may fare a bit better than most of their peers across the U.S. when it comes to health care, but they face the same challenges in poverty and income disparity, based on a recent report.

The newest findings from Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center focusing on children’s well-being, reveal wide income gaps across Illinois families, especially minorities.

The report focused specifically on the nearly half million infants and toddlers in Illinois, almost half of whom – 45 percent – live in low-income families. One in eight live in deep poverty, with household incomes at half or less than the federal poverty level of $23,283 for a family of four.

David Murphey
David Murphey/Official Photo

“It’s difficult to find a more important indicator to highlight than poverty since it has detrimental influence on so many aspects of early development,” said David Murphey, a senior research scientist at Child Trends and the lead author of the report. “We know that the Great Recession created many more poor children and families, many of whom have not fully recovered from these shocks.”

According to Barbara Risman, the head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the implications of this report’s findings are sobering.

“Poverty can have long-term effects in terms of intellectual gaps and behavioral difficulties,” she said. “The long-term consequences of inappropriate care and nutrition in early childhood will be much more expensive than investing in those kids to begin with.”

The poverty is not evenly distributed either.

Although Illinois children are diverse – half are white and a quarter are Latino – Latinos and blacks [15 percent of Illinois infants and toddlers] are more than twice as likely as whites to live below the federal poverty line or in low-income homes.

Nearly a third of all black infants in Illinois live in poverty, a finding that underscores the groups hit the hardest by the recession.

“It’s really clear from this report that we can’t pretend race doesn’t matter in this country,” Risman said. “We have a structural problem with unemployment rates in this country for young people of color, and that’s who the parents of these babies are.”

The report did find encouraging news in terms of young children’s health care. Just 2 percent of young Illinoisans lack health insurance, which Risman said highlights Illinois’ good health policies even before the Affordable Care Act mandated insurance.

Barbara Risman/Official Photo
Barbara Risman/Official Photo

Nearly all infants and toddlers receive preventive care – and rates of early prenatal care for mothers continued to improve [95 percent] while remaining just above the national average [94 percent]. That early prenatal care may account for the slightly lower maternal mortality rates in Illinois as well.

“Determination of cause-and-effect is difficult here, but the evidence is strong that when pregnant women miss out on good quality prenatal care, outcomes are worse for both mother and infant,” Murphey said.

Yet Risman pointed out that low birth weights remain a problem in Illinois.

“Women who live in poverty are more likely to have low birth weight babies, so it continues to plague poor neighborhoods,” she said.

The high figures on food insecurity are also concerning, Risman added. Nearly a third – 31 percent – of infants and toddlers in Illinois live in homes where it is difficult or not possible to receive regular healthy meals.

“Food insecurity at that moment in life is devastating in the long-term,” she said. “A report like this just screams at you that we need to make sure every child has enough to eat.”

Some state policies that have been shown to help address poverty already exist in Illinois.

Murphey said national-level research has found that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has had the single greatest impact on reducing child poverty than any other program, and Illinois is one of a few states that has its own EITC.

Yet that has not been enough to overcome the cycle of poverty that only worsened during the recession.

“Illinois risks maintaining into adulthood a large ‘underclass’ who, through no fault of their own, have missed key opportunities that pave the way to health and productivity,” Murphey said. “How Illinois responds could have profound implications for the burdens it will bear – or the dividends it will gain – in the future.”

One such response, recommends Risman, is heavy investment in early childhood care and education, including appropriate caregiver-to-child ratios and high-quality nutrition.

Likewise, investment in education and jobs for parents is essential, she said.

“We have to have an economy where there are educational and employment opportunities for people who themselves have grown up in poverty,” Risman said.

She said it is vital that the state focus on communities where people of color live while also considering universal policies that help all Illinois residents, such as mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave.

“If we desire to be a state with high cultural capital, a state that businesses want to relocate to, we have to have a workforce that’s well-educated and healthy,” Risman said. “We have to make sure kids are in an environment that allows them to be productive 20 years from now.”

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