DuPage Struggles to Handle Increased Need for Public Aid

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The New York Times
By: Dirk Johnson and Rachel Cromidas
June 18, 2010

Not far from million-dollar homes in DuPage County, a line of people spills through the doors of a public aid office in Villa Park, now the busiest branch of the Illinois Department of Human Services.

As many as 900 county residents come to the office every day looking for food stamps, emergency financial assistance and vouchers for medical care, said Phyllis Baxter, the site's administrator.

The surge in suburban poverty reflects the economic collapse for people who had been solidly middle class, including former homeowners with college degrees. It also underscores the changing demographics in some older commuter cities, now home to more Spanish-speaking immigrants and working-class families fleeing tough city neighborhoods. The state's second-busiest Human Services office is in Blue Island, just south of Chicago in Cook County.

Requests for help at the DuPage County office have soared by about 60 percent in the past five years, Ms. Baxter said. ''They come through those doors,'' she said, ''and they'll say, 'I lost my job. I need food. I can't pay my medical bills.'"

The state, which is some $13 billion in debt, has been unable to increase the size of the office's 81-member staff, which leaves caseworkers scrambling to manage increasing workloads. ''The stress level is off the charts,'' Ms. Baxter said. ''And, remember, plenty of our people have also got somebody in the family who has lost a job.''

Hue Tran has worked as a caseworker in DuPage County for 32 years. She said she had never seen anything like the overwhelming demands of the last two years.

''I just have to work faster,'' Ms. Tran said. ''The phones are ringing, people are lining up, they're demanding to know why they're not getting benefits.''

Ms. Tran and other social workers said many suburbanites, who were living comfortably not long ago, were upset that they now had to beg for help.

''Sometimes they get angry and then they apologize,'' said Ms. Tran, who said she had counseled many people who had started crying. ''I just tell them: 'I understand. It's not your fault.' ''

Other caseworkers say they feel guilty that they cannot spend enough time on clients. Ebony Martin, 32, said that four years ago, when she came to the DuPage County office, she had a caseload of about 900. Today she has more than 2,300 cases.

''I made a color-coded chart that tells me these are the people that I must -- absolutely must -- get to today,'' Ms. Martin said.

Kara Murphy, the executive director of Access DuPage, a nonprofit group that helps uninsured people find health care, said enrollment in the program had jumped 55 percent in the last two years, to about 11,600.

The sharp increase in the need for services has strained the social infrastructure in suburban areas like DuPage County, which for a long time served chiefly as bedroom communities for prosperous commuters and their families. DuPage County, which has nearly one million residents, is the region's second-most-populous county, after Cook. It has the area's highest median household income, more than $73,000, according to a 2007 report by the Heartland Alliance. The unemployment rate has grown to nearly 9 percent in 2010, nearly triple the rate of the early 1990s, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Services for the working poor and the jobless can be scarce in the suburbs. Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform, said cities provided more programs to address poverty, like health clinics and food pantries. Housing costs tend to be higher in the suburbs, Ms. King said, and it can be difficult to rely on the smaller mass transit system.

''It is far better to be poor in Chicago than poor in DuPage,'' she said.

Human Services officials say the 60 percent growth in caseload in DuPage County in five years has far outpaced the statewide increase of about 20 percent.

At a time when the suburbs have an increased need for programs for the poor, Ms. King said the state was so broke it could not afford to offer new services in places like DuPage County.

''We're trying desperately to keep the ones that are here alive,'' she said.

Ms. King estimated that 15 percent of the county's families earned less than $44,000 but more than the federal poverty level of $22,000. She said it is within that earnings range where aid organizations see families struggle. These people have ''too much to get help, but not enough to get by,'' she said.

Despite the dearth of social programs in DuPage County, many poor people have been leaving the city for the suburbs, according to demographers like Kenneth Johnson, a former Loyola University sociologist now at the University of New Hampshire. In many cases, parents of small children say they left Chicago to flee gangs.

LaTanya Chase, 28, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, but moved to the Austin neighborhood before settling in Glendale Heights four years ago. Ms. Chase, who works 24 to 30 hours a week at a CVS drugstore, learned quickly that she could not depend on suburban mass transit and would need a car.

But it was still worth moving to the suburbs, she said, because she does not have to worry about her 8-year-old daughter being caught in gang cross-fire while playing in the front yard.

''I'm here because I was looking for a better place for a child to grow up,'' said Ms. Chase, who goes to the Villa Park office for food stamps and a health-care voucher. ''It's as simple as that.''

The growing racial and ethnic diversity in DuPage County are changing the cliches about white havens for the country-club set. Census Bureau figures show particularly strong growth among Hispanics, about 12 percent of the county's population in 2008, up from 9 percent in 2000.

Officials at the Human Services office in Villa Park say its caseload of people who speak Spanish as a primary language has doubled, to about 15,000, over the past five years.

Joshua Drucker, a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the collapse of the home-building industry has hit Hispanics especially hard. Many Hispanic men do drywall and roofing work. Those jobs, Mr. Drucker said, which paid relatively well, have largely evaporated in the last two to three years.

The collapse of housing jobs sent Graciela Martinez, 37, to the Human Services waiting room with her four young children to receive food stamps. Much of the talking for the family was done by her oldest child, Amel -- ''I'm almost 8'' -- who wore a University of Wisconsin T-shirt and said he wanted to be a doctor.

Ms. Martinez said her fiance, the father of the children, was a roofer whose work hours had shrunk to almost nothing. It became impossible to pay the rent, she said, so the family moved in with her sister in suburban West Chicago, an old railroad town with perhaps the longest-standing Mexican-American community in DuPage County.

One recent day at the Human Services office, people stood at the back of the long line on an asphalt parking lot that was baking in the sun. Later, when the skies darkened and the heavens opened, some people pushed inside to keep dry; others simply stood in the rain.
Ms. Baxter, the administrator, said the sense of despair among the clients could be heartbreaking.

''We've got to be able to give them some hope,'' said Ms. Baxter, who sat behind a beige metal desk piled high with case forms. On the bulletin board, she had pinned the phrase, ''Thy will, not mine, be done.''

''You see a lot of shame and embarrassment,'' she said. ''You see it with people who used to have money and now they're maybe losing everything. And you see the shame in people who have always been dirt poor, too.''

She said she told caseworkers to give people time to work through their emotions. ''I know we're in a hurry,'' she said, ''but we've got to give them time to talk it out.''

She shook her head and lifted her eyes.

''Because they're hurting,'' she said. ''And they're so scared.''

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This page contains a single entry by CFED published on June 18, 2010 3:15 PM.

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