There are distressed counties and communities throughout Illinois that struggle with many economic and social problems, including crime, unemployment, poverty, mortgage foreclosures, declining property values, deficiencies in public health services and deficits in public education.
In recent years, these economic and social problems have become more prevalent, exacerbating existing conditions, which include:
- Inequalities in access to justice in the civil court system
- An overburdened and ineffective criminal justice system
- Overcrowded correctional facilities
- Increased homelessness
- Inadequate educational opportunities
- Insufficient affordable housing
- Inadequate delivery of social services to the less fortunate
- Deficiencies in the availability and quality of public health services
Some counties and communities disproportionately experience these serious social and economic ills.
For example, Illinois counties which had 16 percent or more of their population in poverty in 2010 included: Alexander, Champaign, Coles, Cook, Franklin, Gallatin, Hardin, Jackson, Lawrence, McDonough, Macon, Marion, Massac, Perry, Pike, Pope, Pulaski, Saline, Union, Vermilion, White, Williamson and Winnebago.
Municipalities with a population of more than 100,000, which had family poverty rates of 10 percent or more are: Aurora, Chicago, Joliet, Naperville, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield.
It is important to bring a comprehensive approach to the ongoing crisis of distressed counties and communities in Illinois, and a significant poverty rate, homicides, lack of fair contract opportunities and the unemployment rate are among the best indicators that show a community is in distress.
Cook County has the highest number of persons living in poverty, which amounts to nearly 50 percent of the state’s poverty population, but DuPage County, which has historically been considered to be a wealthy county with a small low-income population, has the second-highest number of persons in poverty.
The poverty rate in Illinois was 14.2 percent in 2011, and this amounts to a 42 percent increase in the poverty rate in Illinois from 2007 to 2011.
Living in an area with high poverty may increase threats to life. For example, a recent comparison of two sets of Chicago neighborhoods, the five poorest and the five least poor, showed the poorest neighborhoods had a homicide rate 11 times the homicide rate in the least poor neighborhoods.
Additionally, the leading causes of death – cancer, heart disease, diabetes-related illnesses, stroke and unintentional injury – is five times higher in the five poorest neighborhoods than it is in the five least poor neighborhoods.
The infant mortality rate is two-and-a-half times higher in the poorest neighborhoods than in the five least poor neighborhoods.
The Years of Potential Life Lost, an estimate of the average years a person would have lived if he or she had not died prematurely, show 2,172 homicides for every 100,000 residents in the five poorest neighborhoods, assuming a life expectancy of 75 years, compared to that of only 186 in the five least poor neighborhoods.
As long as these social and economic problems are not successfully addressed in distressed counties and communities, the cost to taxpayers in Illinois for the many programs operated or funded by the state will only increase.
State government resources are expended in ever-increasing amounts to address these social and economic problems, and those expenditures are a significant drain on the state’s road to financial stability.
State government, taxpayers, and those living in distressed counties and communities with a significant poverty problem could benefit from the creation of a state action plan.
The plan should identify modifications for existing state programs to dramatically improve the delivery of services, reduce the cost of those services and eliminate wasteful spending. It should also address how leadership programs and new educational opportunities could foster and equip new leaders and identify ways state government could actively create a changed environment to have numerous positive impacts.
If more effective, efficient, and economical ways to deliver social, law enforcement, correctional, educational, and medical programs can be developed, then significant strides can be made in the overall welfare of the distressed counties and communities. Those solutions could be replicated, with adjustments as appropriate, to all communities in Illinois.
I urge the governor to create a Distressed Counties and Communities Commission comprised of stakeholders in distressed counties and communities, representatives of appropriate state agencies and community leaders. The commission would explore, discuss, and coordinate efforts to prepare an action plan to offer enhanced state governmental services in a meaningful way, to foster leadership, and create programs that can succeed in addressing the myriad of social and economic problems that exist. This, in turn, can benefit all Illinois communities.
The Distressed Counties and Communities Commission must be charged with:
- Finding and creating innovative means to address and meet the numerous needs of those who receive state social services.
- Designing plans to assist and enhance the efforts of state agencies and local governments that provide law enforcement and social services.
- Analyzing successful state and local governmental programs in other locales in the subject areas of law enforcement, court administration, corrections, job skill retraining, education, economic opportunity, job creation, social services and public health.
- And developing an action plan that includes information about changes and improvements to existing programs, statutes, and regulations that can be made by reallocating existing resources and not increasing state taxes.