Poverty Rates Rise In Many Suburbs

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Poverty rates rise in many suburbs
Census data tie hike to continued influx of poor minorities

By Sara Olkon and Darnell Little
Tribune staff reporters
Published September 18, 2006

Bertha Mares, a mother of four, has neither a job nor a husband. A quiet pragmatism settled over her on a recent afternoon as she waited 20 minutes for a food pantry in Cicero to open its doors.

Eventually, the 30-year-old widow left with a plastic sack of groceries: canned chicken breast, soup, Hamburger Helper, Triscuits and mashed potatoes. Mares relies on this sort of aid, along with food stamps and $1,200 a month in Social Security benefits.

At a time of relative prosperity in the region, Mares is poor, and used to it. For her, seeking hand-me-downs and help from relatives is part of the routine.

In much of suburban Chicago, poverty rates are rising, according to information released by the U.S. Census Bureau late last month. More and more, the data suggest, that is tied to the growing movement of immigrants and minorities, especially Hispanics, to the suburbs.

In Cicero, Hispanics grew from 77 percent of the population in 2000 to 85 percent in 2005, while the town's poverty rate rose from 15.5 percent to 19 percent. And the poverty rate among just Hispanics was even higher last year, at 20 percent.

It is not a lack of jobs, but the influx of a largely low-skilled workforce, trying to find its way in a service economy, that explains the shift, said Paul Jargowsky, an associate professor of political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas who tracks poverty rates around the country.

Several studies in recent years indicate that pattern is playing out in communities around Chicago and other cities, both in inner-ring suburbs and, to a lesser degree, some wealthier towns.

The recent census figures show the poverty rate in suburban Cook County rose to 8.2 percent in 2005, up from 6.4 percent in 1999. The figure was 5.3 percent in 1989.

“It's big families and a lot of people who don't have tons of education,” said Cris Pope, director of the Interfaith Leadership Project in Cicero. “That dictates what kinds of jobs they can get.”

Jobs like the one Sergio Guadarrama works, if he can. Most days, the 32-year-old native of Mexico City begins his day perched by the roadside leading to the Home Depot on Cicero Avenue. He and a dozen or so other day laborers jockey for the chance to install drywall or repair a roof for a stranger. On a good day–when a contractor pays him as promised–he can make $130.

Bad days are not surprising. Never mind that few contractors provide worker's compensation or other benefits.

“Nothing is secure here,” said Guadarrama, who tucked his curly brown hair under a Chicago Blackhawks cap. He has worked the last five years as a temporary hired hand.

With his wife and two children nearby in their $650-per-month Cicero apartment, a few days of shorted wages or heavy rain could spell big trouble.

The allure of more affordable housing in a nice setting is a major drawing card for many suburbs, but even in a blue-collar town like Cicero, the prices are high enough to drive some to extremes.

David Boyle, a community activist who has lived in Cicero since 1982, said he has seen single-family homes house as many as 20 people.

“You can walk into almost any bungalow in Cicero and you will find that the front room and dining room are crowded with mattresses,” he said. “The landlords have figured out that they can charge $150 a month for a little baby mattress for an adult male.”

For Felipe and Rebecca Roque, housing is secure for now, but money worries still consume them.

Felipe Roque works in maintenance at an apartment complex in Chicago. He takes home about $1,800 a month, a paycheck stretched thin to support the couple and their five children, ages 4, 9, 11, 13 and 20.

“He really uses his credit cards,” said Rebecca Roque, explaining how their children were able to buy shoes for school this year. The children are quickly outgrowing their year-old school uniforms, but the clothes must do for now.

They still owe $68,000 on the four-bedroom home they bought in 1995. With food, clothes and utilities, that leaves little wiggle room for household repairs.

Sometimes Rebecca Roque, who volunteers at a nearby Salvation Army church, is able to take home leftovers. Trips to McDonald's or Old Country Buffet are saved for very special occasions–at most four times a year.

The Roques look forward to the day when their oldest will contribute to the household and their youngest is in school, so Rebecca can go back to work as a cook. Then, they say, they will be able to fix up the house and not lean so heavily on credit.

Cicero town spokesman Dan Proft called the new census numbers “a good news-bad news type of thing.”

“More people are coming to seek opportunity, [but] they come with very little,” he said. “It takes awhile to get your feet under you.”

Proft said the town is committed to job creation through economic development.

“The great solution to a lot of this is a job–a consistent, reliable paycheck,” he said.