Poverty in McLean County is 'Bigger Than We Think'

Colleen Reynolds


McLean County’s median household income is almost $65,000, but panelists at a McLean County League of Women Voters forum Tuesday night said despite that, the problem of poverty is creating waiting lists for social service agencies and leaving some people without help.

Lisa Hirtzig was among those who shared their personal stories. Hirtzig was in a women’s shelter with a broken neck when she learned about the YWCA’s Labyrinth House which provides transitional housing for formerly imprisoned women. Hirtzig grew up in foster care and went from one abusive relationship to the next.

"I lost my job. I lost my home which made me lose my car. Losing my car, I had no way to get to anything," she said. "It really put me down. I had nothing ... nobody," she told a packed Community Room at the Normal Public Library. 

Starla Hays has been at Mayors Manor in Bloomington for nearly three years. The 26-unit apartment building provides permanent, supportive housing to formerly homeless, single adults. Hays was married for 22 years and after a divorce, she turned to drugs and alcohol and her downward spiral began.

"Mayors Manor saved my life," she said wiping tears from her eyes.

"I don't want you to feel sorry for me, I just want you to help because there are so, so many out there," she said referring to others who need assistance, often because one crisis was amplified by poverty and a lack of resources.

"We have working poor in McLean County. People are working two jobs and still are in poverty," said Mayors Manor Representative Tasha Davis.

Illinois State University graduate student Jeanna Campbell explained why she started the School Street Food Pantry. While she was an undergraduate, Campbell found herself working for poverty-level wages and scrounging for food. As a Type 1 diabetic, she also had costly prescriptions that she bought instead of groceries, only to find her blood sugar falling to dangerously low levels when she had nothing to eat at the end of the month.

Campbell said she wound up taking an even lower-paying job to qualify for government assistance when she encountered health problems and had no more sick days.

"It was definitely a cycle and a situation that left me in a bad place."

According to the Heartland Alliance, slightly more than 21,200 people in Mclean County live in poverty. Center for Hope Ministries Outreach Coordinator Pat Turner, who fled Chicago public housing, said poverty is a multiplier because those in it can't rely on personal resources to get past a setback.

"It's bigger than we think," Turner declared as she pointed out her ministry served 4,600 individuals in its food pantry last year.

Turner believes lawmakers need to enact legislation that addresses some of the root causes of poverty.

"Racial injustice, ageism, sexism, inequality, classism—those are the things that feed into poverty and leave people feeling hopeless," she said.

Turner, who is also a candidate for Normal Town Council, suggested public policy makers need to initiate systematic changes.

"We've got to get on the preventive end. We've got to start building families. We've got to start investing in our young people and start on the solutions side instead of dealing with it on the crisis side," she said.

Moderator Laurie Bergner of the League of Women Voters of McLean County agreed with an audience member who suggested with so many new minorities in leadership positions in Springfield, now is a good time to start lobbying for legislative changes including raising the minimum wage.

Bergner advised panelists to form a lobbying coalition.

"I think going in groups is important because you have a better chance you'll be listened to," she said.

Housing Inequities Still Plague Minority Communities

Judith Valente


The president of the Illinois chapter of the NAACP says that more than 50 years after the federal Fair Housing Act was enacted, African-Americans still face housing discrimination, predatory mortgage lending practices, and other obstacles to moving into racially diverse and affluent neighborhoods.


Speaking on GLT's Sound Ideas, Teresa Haley said African-Americans are more likely to be charged higher mortgage interest rates and higher fees for mortgage insurance as well as for credit checks.

"They are finding other ways to disguise discrimination," she said.

Haley was this year's keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Day Teach-In at Illinois Wesleyan University, sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

The teach-in began with a panel discussion of housing justice.

Home ownership for African-Americans lags about 30 percent behind that of whites, according to a 2016 Harvard University study.

Black homeowners have not rebounded as quickly as whites from the 2008-2009 mortgage crisis that led to a record number of foreclosures in minority communities, the study found.

Haley blamed the decline in black home ownership on "predatory lending, people losing their jobs, foreclosures, and people doing reverse mortgages” to supplement their income needs, only to lose their homes in the long run.

She said low-income renters also face significant challenges.

Many who receive Section 8 housing vouchers are forced to live in substandard housing while landlords inflate rental prices in order to collect more from the federal government, Haley said. The cost of rent for Section 8 housing is split between the tenant and the government.

Renters are also vulnerable, she said.

“One of the challenges renters have, especially with Section 8 (federal housing vouchers), is finding quality housing. A lot of the places they place them in aren’t worth seeing.”

According to a 2017 Illinois State University/Stevenson Center study conducted for Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal, higher community "social vulnerability" levels are often correlated with racial diversity, old age, limited transportation, low-quality housing, and population density. The study noted public transportation, housing, and health disparities based on East or Westside residence.

Further, ISU researchers found discrimination plays out in health care, housing, employment, and policing. One study participant explained, "microaggressions affect people in the workplace and [their] overall happiness." Pertaining to housing, another said, "There are issues with housing/landlords, a lot of it can be discrimination based on economic [status], color, or orientation."

GLT investigated the state of low-income rental housing in Bloomington-Normal in a September 2017 series called Landlord v. Tenant. That series found an aging, increasingly dilapidated stock of housing in both cities.

The series also chronicled instances of landlords who repeatedly failed to make urgent repairs despite repeated pleas from tenants. Bloomington and Normal have only two housing inspectors each to monitor nearly 20,000 rental units.

Haley said many low-income tenants are forced to live in housing that “isn’t well-built or well-maintained. But the landlord at the first of the month, they’re going to get their money regardless."

There are "a lot of slum landlords out there trying to get rich off the backs of poor people," she added.

Haley said renters should document problems they have with their housing that landlords won’t address.

She recommended they report these issues to their City Council representatives, their local chapter of the NAACP and even put the information out on Facebook and other social media.

She said tenants should not withhold rent to protest living conditions because landlords can immediately file for eviction.

Haley called for stricter building codes and increased rental housing inspections.

“This is a statewide and nationwide problem,” she said of housing inequality.

The Citiesscape Pt. 2: 'Desert' Life Unhealthy for Twin Citians?

Is West/Southwest Bloomington a “desert,” where lower-income residents and students especially may be virtually stranded far from healthy foods and drawn to retail “oases” that may foster serious or even lethal health risks?

According to a recently released NIOTBN-sponsored study by Illinois State University students and ISU’s Stevenson Center, the West Side exhibits disturbing desert-like conditions.    

The “disparities in access to healthy food correlates with many social factors,” including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and income level,” concludes “A Community Report on Intolerance, Segregation, Accessibility, Inclusion, Progress, and Improvement.” A diet of “primarily unhealthy products” — including junk food, tobacco and liquor products, and fast food — can cause cardiovascular disease, liver cirrhosis, obesity, and multiple forms of cancer.

In mapping the Twin Cities, the ISU team quickly realized that Bloomington-Normal possesses many more convenience stores than grocery stores. Convenience stores stay open long hours, offering a small variety of household goods and “unhealthy” foods. With high convenience store accessibility and lower grocery store accessibility comes the tendency to rely on unhealthier convenience store options rather than the relatively healthier grocery store offerings, the study asserted.

Further, the majority of Bloomington-Normal's supermarkets and grocery stores are located along major roads, with Veterans Parkway, Market Street, and Main Street possessing the clear majority of store locations. On the map below, The areas shaded green are within one mile of a grocery store; unshaded areas are more than one mile from a grocery. The green and red dots indicate disadvantaged persons.

Additionally, layering the fast food/convenience store/grocery store locations over the map’s U.S. Supermarket Accessibility layer shows reason for significant concern in West and Southwest Bloomington. There are quite a few red dots more than one mile from a grocery. This becomes more concerning when considering walkability. Most of the grocery stores are located along high traffic roads that are difficult for pedestrians to navigate while carrying groceries. So, efforts to improve food security in West and Southwest Bloomington may be beneficial to disadvantaged community members.

“There are also far more fast-food restaurants than grocery stores in Bloomington-Normal,” the team noted. “In all, unhealthy food options are more available than healthy ones.

“Distance to, prevalence of, and accessibility of healthy food options are directly related to a person’s overall health. Neighborhoods which lack these nutritious and affordable food options are called food deserts. While located in urban and rural settings, food deserts are found predominantly in low-income communities of color.

“Individuals in these food deserts will face a higher density of tobacco stores and fast-food restaurants with few, if any, healthy food options. When people and families have to expend more energy and resources to get fresher, healthier options than food found at convenience stores or fast-food restaurants, they will often choose to buy more readily available and less healthy food. Fast-food restaurants and tobacco companies target low-income and minority populations in their advertising—such as fast-food companies offering free prizes and more kids’ meals in lower income neighborhoods than higher income communities.”

Middle school and high school students walking to school are confronted with many “concealed dangers,” students advised. On the way to and from school in some neighborhoods, students may pass by multiple fast food establishments as well as alcohol and tobacco stores. According to several studies, more than fifty percent of U.S. schools that are mostly minority have both fast food and tobacco stores in close proximity, and low-income and minority students have a greater chance of taking routes to and from school that can expose them to fast food, alcohol, and tobacco stores.

Latino students are more likely to go to schools that are in areas including multiple alcohol, tobacco, and fast food establishments. Having these establishments near schools can increase the rates of obesity seen in school children as well as higher rates of teenage smoking, and children who pass these places everyday on their way to school are more likely to be offered alcohol, tobacco, or even other drugs.

“It is encouraged that students walk to school, but the dangers of kids passing these businesses can lead to unhealthy habits,” the ISU study warned. “Compared to middle schoolers, high schoolers have a higher chance of being affected by encountering these businesses daily. In sum, the literature points to a clear association between socioeconomic status and the chance of passing by these types of establishments.”

While a trio of new groceries has emerged in Bloomington over the past two years, two are located on the Veteran’s Parkway strip, and two, including the Green Top Grocery on the near West Side, are specialty retailers featuring organic, “natural,” and other trait-identified products that often are out of the basic price range of lower-income families. Green Top is a co-op grocery, where customers can purchase shares in the store to receive discounts and rebates – a model which according to Stevenson Center study coordinator Frank Beck may not fit the conventional “cultural dynamic” or consumer preferences of lower-income and minority consumers.

Kroger’s location at College and Emerson serves both Illinois Wesleyan students and West Siders. But Aldi’s, a discount food outlet, operated on Market Street, serving a West Side clientele, for roughly nine years before moving to the western city fringe near Walmart and opening a second location on Veteran’s bordering Normal’s east side Walmart – in either case, a drive or bus ride for the West Side’s poorer or older residents. A Latino grocery operates in the former Market Street location, with fresh produce but a tailored product selection.

While chains like Walmart have been making inroads into populous metropolitan inner city neighborhoods, securing a major new grocery in or adjacent to Bloomington’s lower-income neighborhoods is a daunting challenge.

“There’s a whole science out there of, ‘Should we build it, and where should we built it?’” Beck related. “Those folks that are going to spend those millions of dollars know that science back and forth. At the community level, by rough estimates, these days, you have to have a population of about 3,000 to make ends meet, if you’re the owner of a grocery store. Some small towns have thought of co-ops and other things – food deserts are not just in urban; they’re in rural as well.”

Against All Odds to Examine Black Pursuit of the American Dream

against all odds FB tease camille.jpg

AGAINST ALL ODDS: The Fight for a Black Middle Class, will be screened at 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at Normal First United Methodist Church, offering Twin Citians a chance to examine and discuss challenges to and efforts to overcome racism and discrimination in America.

“Have black Americans had a fair shot at the American dream?” acclaimed journalist Bob Herbert asks. The question is answered in AGAINST ALL ODDS: The Fight for a Black Middle Class, a documentary that probes the harsh and often brutal discrimination that has made it extremely difficult for African-Americans to establish a middle-class standard of living.

A panel discussion will follow the film, which is open to the public.

“Whites talk about working hard and playing by the rules. But blacks have always had to play by a different, hateful set of hideously unfair rules. Working hard has never been enough for black Americans to flourish,” Herbert says in the film’s opening. Then, through dramatic historical footage and deeply moving personal interviews, he explores the often frustrated efforts of black families to pursue the American dream.

Today many African American families are still digging out of the recession that followed the Great Crash of 2007-08, and although some are doing better, black wealth remains meager compared to the white middle class. Nearly 40 percent of black children are poor, and for every dollar of wealth in the hands of the average white family, the typical black family has only a little more than a nickel.

This revealing and sometimes shocking documentary connects the dots of American history to reveal how the traditional route up the economic ladder by attaining a job that pays a living wage and then buying a house — is a financial ascent that has been systematically denied to black families. Reduced educational opportunity, rampant employment discrimination, the inequitable application of the GI bill, mortgage redlining and virulent housing segregation are among the injustices that have converged to limit the prosperity of black families from generation to generation.

Bob Herbert has been covering and commenting on American politics, poverty, racism and social issues for over 45 years through his tenure as a nationally-syndicated op-ed columnist for The New York Times as well as work for other newspapers and broadcast media. Growing up in New Jersey, the son of an upholsterer whose prosperous business was hobbled by banks unwilling to offer loans to blacks, Herbert had an intimate view of the barriers that faced striving black families. His interviews with prominent African Americans, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabelle Wilkerson, Congressman Elijah Cummings, renowned psychologist and author Alvin Poussaint, and policy activist Angela Glover Blackwell, as well as other accomplished black professionals, uncover generational stories of profoundly damaging economic and social prejudice.

In AGAINST ALL ODDS, Herbert looks back at the uphill struggle facing black families freed from slavery over a century and a half ago and emerging from life as uneducated sharecroppers in the South. He traces the barriers to employment and housing designed to keep black people “in their place” both in southern states and in northern states as African Americans migrated throughout the country in search of opportunity and a better life. Shocking footage from the the 50s and 60s in Chicago shows how black families trying to escape overcrowded ghettos faced riots if they moved to a white block or a white suburb. Beryl Satter, an author whose father, a white lawyer, fought against discrimination in Chicago, tells Herbert, “This whole history of white rioting and white violence has been historically buried. When people think of violence and riots in the street, they always think of the 1960s when black people rioted, but when white people rioted, it doesn’t even have a name.”

For those blacks who have made it, and acquired a middle class lifestyle in suburban neighborhoods like those in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the foothold feels tenuous. Brent and Karla Swinton live there in a lovely home and both have good jobs. But Brent says, “We may have arrived to a degree but we just got here so it’s, it’s still not quite the same.” The reality behind that sense of insecurity was abundantly clear following the Great Recession when widespread foreclosures stripped wealth out of the black community.

Yet through it all, Herbert reports, black Americans have shown time and again a tremendous resilience in the face of cruelty and injustice and a determination to get their fair share of the American dream. Herbert says, “There are no barriers that can’t be overcome. When dreams remain unrealized, it simply means the fight goes on.”

Women's Empowerment Wednesday Lecture at IWU

The lecture "Women's Empowerment is Smart Economics" will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Illinois Wesleyan University's Hansen Student Center.

Through a gift from President Eckley, IWU's Economics Department is able to invite a distinguished member from the economics profession to deliver a lecture every year at the university. This year, Professor Yana van der Meulen Rodgers of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University will discuss women's empowerment in the labor market and the consequent benefits to their families and economies as a whole.

"In the era of smart phones and smart cars, empowering women can be a 'gender-smart' way to achieve economy-wide gains," Rodgers argues.

Rodgers earned her Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, and her interests include the impact of public policy and labor laws on women's employment and wages; how ownership rights and access to resources for women can not only improve their children's welfare but also reduce their household poverty level; the consequence of international trade on gender wage gaps; and how gender disparity, growth, and development are all interconnected, just to name a few.

Much of her research has focused on East and South Asian Economies and she has consulted for the Asian Development Bank and The World Bank.