Chicago Business News, July 2, 2008: Chicago۪s working poor struggle to get enough to eat, study shows

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July 02, 2008

(Crain۪s) Chicago-area working-poor families are struggling to afford one of life۪s basic needs: food.

In a survey of 301 working-poor residents of Cook County by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, 61% said their families had faced financial difficulties in securing food in the past year.

Forty-nine percent of the respondents identified three or more examples of their poor circumstances, including a lack of money to buy groceries, skipping meals to stretch the food they had or simply going hungry.

The study defines the working poor as any individual who has worked at least 20 hours a week for at least 27 weeks in the past year but whose incomes is below $17,871, 175% of the federal poverty level. The areas surveyed within Cook County had populations of at least 15% working poor.

Families are trying to make ends meet amid job losses and soaring food and fuel costs. Twenty-two percent of those responding said they had received food from a pantry while fifty-nine percent said they hadn۪t, with many saying they were too ashamed to do so.

Among that 59%, 40% told surveyors that “people will look down on (you) if they know you use a food pantry.”

The Greater Chicago Food Depository worked with the University of Chicago Survey Lab to conduct the study, which was completed in November and was made available to Crain۪s this week.

“Based on anecdotal evidence, we would expect that conditions have actually worsened” since the survey was conducted, says Alicia Huguelet, director of public policy at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “The profile provided by the working-poor study actually paints a rosier picture than may exist to date.” Among other findings in the study:

Of those households struggling to secure food, 30% didn۪t use any type of food assistance programs, while 43% had at least one family member using food stamps.

And 45% had at least one child enrolled in a free- or reduced-price school lunch program.

In 16% of the households, at least one family member was participating in Women, Infants and Children, a federal and regional food supplemental program for low-income families.

Less then 1% went to a soup kitchen or received Meals on Wheels or a municipal emergency food box program through their city.

The study authors did not estimate the number of working poor residents in Cook County.

According to calculations by the Heartland Alliance Mid-America Institute on Poverty, 2006 Census figures the most recent figures available showed Cook had 45,073 residents, or about 15% of the total population, who worked at least 35 hours a week all year and were poor.

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