Although Illinois' unemployment rate has fallen, it remains stubbornly high at 8.7 percent for November, and many of the new jobs don't pay well, advocates said.
At the same time, steep cuts in the state's Medicaid program and to programs to prevent homelessness and treat mental illness are making the situation tougher for people already struggling to provide basic necessities, Terpstra and other advocates say. People find themselves choosing between rent and food, between paying utilities and going to the doctor.
Women, children and the disabled are among those more likely to live in poverty. But the new statistics belie stereotypes that those struggling are single parents or the unemployed, advocates say.
"One of the big things is that people have jobs, but not jobs they can raise a family on," said Pete Schaefer, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, a network of food pantries that serve 13 counties, including some of the wealthiest Chicago suburbs.
Schaefer said some food-bank users are unemployed, but many are "making $9, $10 or $11 an hour."
"There is just no end in sight to the people hurting out there," said Schaefer, adding that demand has more than doubled in the last four to five years, with food banks in his network serving a half-million individuals a year.
Illinois ranks around the middle of states when it comes to poverty and near-poverty. But advocates say the numbers still are far too high, especially when lawmakers could take steps to ease the problem, including increasing the minimum wage from $8.25 an hour. They also advocate restoring homeless prevention funding, fully implementing Medicaid expansion and creating an automatic retirement account program.
Nateka Simmons of Urbana lost her job as an activities director at a skilled nursing center last February after back surgery that required months of physical therapy. She ended up going to food banks and applying for food stamps and Medicaid to help care for her three children, 13- and 9-year-old boys and a 4-year-old girl. Her husband's $9-an-hour dollar-store job wasn't enough to cover the bills or allow them to enroll in the company's health insurance plan, Simmons said.