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Poverty fell, income rose last year in Illinois, Chicago

Poverty fell and median income rose substantially last year in Chicago and Illinois, mirroring national trends that suggest Americans were reclaiming financial strength after a long recovery from the Great Recession.

The Chicago metro area saw its poverty rate drop to 12.4 percent in 2016 from 13.3 percent the year before, according to American Community Survey data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau. Among the top 25 most populous metro areas — whose poverty rates ranged from 15.4 percent in Miami to 8.4 percent in the District of Columbia — 17 saw significant declines in the number of people living under the poverty line and the rest saw no statistically significant change.

Meanwhile, median household income increased 3.2 percent in the Chicago metro area, to $66,020. Nearly all of the other metro areas saw increases as well, with one of the largest in the San Francisco metro area, where an 8.1 percent jump to $96,677 gave it the highest median income in the country, surpassing Washington, D.C.

Illinois experienced slightly more modest improvements. The state's poverty rate declined to 13 percent from 13.6 percent, and median household income in the state rose to $60,960, up 1.4 percent from the year before.

Black Illinoisans had substantial gains, with median income rising 4.6 percent to $35,517, the most significant increase after years of sluggish growth. The black poverty rate dropped to 26.5 percent, lower than it was before the recession.

Illinois' overall poverty rate remains higher than its pre-recession level of 11.9 percent in 2007. Other states' poverty rates range from 7.3 percent in New Hampshire to 20.8 percent in Mississippi. Nearly all states saw declines last year, while Vermont was the sole state to see its poverty rate increase.

Income inequality did not budge in Illinois or in most states.

Anti-poverty advocates said they were glad to see the numbers generally moving in the right direction, but fell short of celebrating. More than 1.6 million people in Illinois, and nearly 1.2 million in the Chicago metro area, lived below the poverty line last year, many of them children, and minorities continued to fare markedly worse than whites.

Though Illinois' black population saw marked improvement last year, its poverty rate is nearly triple that of whites, which was 9.7 percent, and its median income is about half that of whites, which was $66,582. Latinos had a poverty rate of 17.2 percent and median income of $51,706.

Many more people not below the official poverty line — which is about $12,200 for a single person or $24,500 for a family of four — don't earn enough to make ends meet, said John Bouman, president of the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. The organization believes the poverty line should be at twice the official threshold.

Bouman said it is "good that (the poverty rate) improved slightly, and we hope that continues." But he worries the numbers don't yet reflect the fallout from Illinois' budget impasse, which for months curbed funding for job training, community mental health and other services that help the poor.

"We have to be careful what we find out next year and pay attention to how we build those systems back up," he said.

Bouman attributes the gains to general economic improvements nationally as well as the expansion of health care coverage enabled by the Affordable Care Act. Efforts to repeal that law and squeeze other programs that foster access to education, affordable housing and economic activity in blighted neighborhoods are "dangerous to the ability of folks to leave poverty," he said.

aelejalderuiz@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @alexiaer

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