Editor’s note: This series is funded by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.
By Pam G. Dempsey — Robin Arbiter is a long-time resident of the Lierman Neighborhood, a low-income area near the corner of Washington and Lierman streets in Urbana.
Despite her physical disabilities, she is an at-home activist and artist. To get by, Arbiter receives federal social security disability benefits. She also receives assistance for housing and food.
Most of the residents are much like Arbiter – low-income or extremely low-income. The average income for a single-person household who is disabled in Arbiter’s neighborhood is about $700, she said. And they are not alone in their struggles.
More than 15 percent of Champaign County households – or about 12,200 – make less than $10,000 a year, according to estimates by the Census Bureau released last month.
“People cobble an economic blanket together made of what their income is and what benefits they can receive,” Arbiter said.
Arbiter said that too often, the system doesn’t allow families to enough to achieve stability that helps them move ahead. Arbiter said families live in a Catch 22.
Lowering in costs in one area may mean a family loses eligibility in a different assistance program.
Food prices have risen 25 percent since 2004 and the cost impacts lower-income residents as they aim to balance food and energy costs. Increased unemployment also has pushed more families to seek help.
Darlene Kloeppel of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission said recently that 10 percent of the clients the agency serves are new.
The agency assists families with power bills, weatherization programs and senior services – in total, administering about 40 grants a year.
“Other things are suffering because total family budget can only accommodate so many things, so when housing becomes an issue, once housing is dealt with, there’s medication, child care, transportation … because there’s only so much money to go around,” Kloeppel said.
Other agencies are seeing an increase in requests for help as well.
Carol Elliott, supervisor of the Cunningham Township in Urbana, said that their programs do not typically see an impact from economic recessions until much later.
The township serves residents within Urbana and offers general assistance for those who cannot get assistance anywhere else. The amounts are limited to an average of $243 a month per case. The township will also pick up prescription costs.
For its fiscal year 2012 ending June 30, Cunningham Township served an average of 141 clients a month – an all-time high since 1975, according to township records.
“Probably because people who are working and get laid off get unemployment benefits and then, when those finally run out, is when we see more of an increase for help,” Elliott said.
But Arbiter said that what is worrisome now in Urbana is the threat of homelessness for many of her neighbors and those who are locked into what she calls the “bubble” of poverty.
Down the street from Arbiter’s apartment is a large, privately-owned complex called Urbana Townhomes that served low-income families. Yet the property is now foreclosed and faces demolition. All of the residents there had to find another place to live.
“All it takes is someone who is higher up in the food chain than you, like these owners of these apartments to go bankrupt,” Arbiter said. “You have 94 empty units over there now, where did these families go?”
This story was funded by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.