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Illinois made a bold promise to end poverty. In Alexander County, it’s hard to tell.

Illinois made a bold promise to end poverty. In Alexander County, it’s hard to tell.

State law dating back to 2020 sought to cut deep poverty in half by 2026, end it by 2036

Capitol News Illinois
& the Saluki Local Reporting Lab

This story, produced in partnership with Southern Illinois University journalism students, was supported by grant funding from the Pulitzer Center.

Pink and purple toys line the living room of this tiny public housing apartment in Cairo at Illinois’ southern border. A doorway leads to the only other room: a small bedroom that Kaneesha Mallory shares with her 4-year-old daughter Bre’Chelle.

It’s not an ideal living situation. The public housing authority built the high-rise for seniors, not families.

But on an annual income of about $15,000, it’s all the 34-year-old single mother can afford. She receives food stamps and disability benefits but those payments haven't kept up with the rising cost of groceries and other essentials.

“It’s hard. I didn't plan to live like this but such is life, you know?” Mallory said. “Because if I wanted to get another apartment somewhere out of housing, I would have a utility bill and the utility bill would be super freakin’ high.”

Her rural town of about 1,600 people has suffered one hit after another. It’s lost most of its public housing in recent years because of health and safety concerns. Cairo’s Head Start, where Mallory’s daughter attended, closed last year, leaving fewer options for child care and early education services. The town lost its sole nursing home during the pandemic. And while Cairo celebrated the opening of a co-op grocery store last year, there’s still no place to fill up a car with gas.

In 2020, Gov. JB Pritzker and lawmakers pledged to help people like Mallory and the communities they call home.

Through passage of a law known as the Intergenerational Poverty Act, they decreed an ambitious plan: to cut deep and persistent poverty by 50 percent by 2026, lift all children from poverty by 2031 and eliminate poverty entirely in Illinois by 2036.

This law created a 25-member commission made up of private and public sector officials to study the root causes of poverty and racial disparities that plague many of Illinois’ poorest communities, including their lack of safe, affordable housing, high unemployment rates and child care shortages.

But like most of the commissions and blue-ribbon panels that lawmakers create, it has no authority to fix the problems it finds. It can only make recommendations to lawmakers and the governor.

Pritzker’s agenda has aligned with much of what the group has proposed, such as increasing funding for early childhood education and creating for the first time in Illinois a $50 million state-level child tax credit similar to what the federal government offers families, which was included in the state budget that passed last month. Collectively, those plans provide funding for 5,000 state-supported preschool seats next year and give qualifying families with children up to age 12 a tax credit that’s equal to 20 percent of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

The state, under Pritzker’s leadership, has also increased funding for low-income college students, increased the cash assistance paid to eligible families under what’s known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and expanded the number of working parents eligible for child care subsidies, among other initiatives, according to a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Human Services.

But bolder and more controversial policy ideas supported by some on the commission, such as extending coverage to tipped workers under the state’s minimum wage laws and establishing a statewide guaranteed income for families who live in poverty – state aid they could spend with no strings attached – have not gained significant traction. Communities like Cairo that have suffered decades of economic decline have seen little relief.

And the commission, which has seven vacancies, is a long way from meeting its goals.

In fact, financial problems are worsening for many families as pandemic-era enhanced benefits sunset in the face of rising inflation.

Marsha Hayes hugs Brian Tucker

Marsha Hayes hugs Brian Tucker after he picks his monthly groceries from Arrowleaf's mobile pantry on Feb. 7, 2024, in Cairo. “Once I see you every week, you know all the time for months the same people all the time,” Hayes said. “You get to be friends, they ask about the kids and we always check on their kids, you know, and see how they're doing, so it's that caring. It's that they know you care.” (Photo by Lylee Gibbs, for Capitol News Illinois and the Saluki Local Reporting Lab)


‘What’s your plan…?’

Few places are immune to poverty, but rural counties in southern and central Illinois struggle the most. And perhaps nowhere experiences these challenges as deeply as Cairo.

A majority Black town steeped in history at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Cairo is the government seat of Alexander County. It’s the poorest county in Illinois and the fastest depopulating in America. Today, the county is home to about 5,000 people, down from a high of over 25,000 in 1940.

Cairo Mayor Thomas Simpson said he’d never heard of the commission on poverty elimination, though it did hold a listening session in the town in March 2023.

“We need to know, okay, what's your plan to get us out of poverty,” Simpson said. ‘What (are) you gonna do for us down here in Cairo? I’m working on rebuilding Cairo, so how can we work together to make things happen.”

Simpson said his community suffers from a lack of industry and small businesses. The state, he said, should take advantage of the region's natural resources.

“I mean, you look at river, rail and of course we've got the waterways out here. … A lot of things can happen here and we’ve got space for it,” Simpson said.

There have been efforts to uplift Cairo, but they’ve fallen short.

One of the latest came in August 2020, when Pritzker joined local officials to announce $40 million in state support to jump start construction of a port just west of Cairo on the Mississippi River, near the confluence. The governor billed the project as an economic lifeline for Cairo and the surrounding area.

“This is more than just a port,” Pritzker said that day. “It’s also fuel for new jobs and newfound economic prosperity all across this region, a region that’s been left out and left behind for far too long.”

But the project, which was supposed to be operational this year, has faced numerous delays. Local officials say planning work and environmental studies are underway, but no timeline has been given for construction to start.

Jayson Holland

Jayson Holland drives a bus owned by Arrowleaf that has been transformed into a mobile food pantry into the entrance of Cairo, Illinois on Feb. 7, 2024. “One of the big things is just having purpose in our day,” Holland said. “So it's like on Wednesdays, you know, I know I'm gonna be in Cairo, I'm gonna have this good interactions with my people and like help take care of our clients down there...” (Photo by Lylee Gibbs, for Capitol News Illinois and the Saluki Local Reporting Lab)


‘They can't find a place to stay’

Alongside an expansion of industry and jobs, Cairo officials say they need places for people to live at a variety of price points.

“We have a crisis in southern Illinois for affordable housing, especially in areas such as Alexander County,” said state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, who sits on the commission.

That crisis was apparent on a Tuesday night in early April, when dozens of Cairo citizens, including Mallory, filled the blue lunch tables in the high school gymnasium for a meeting about the town’s housing needs.

The conversation sounded like one that might be heard after a hurricane or large-scale fire pushed people from their homes. “We’ve had a lot of folks displaced. And of course, a lot of folks want to come home,” Simpson said at the top of the meeting. But the housing crisis here is human-made.

Citing safety issues and no money for repairs after local officials misspent it, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has closed five large housing complexes in the county since 2019. That eliminated most of the subsidized apartment units that had been available only five short years ago.

Residents forced to move from their apartments received vouchers to help subsidize their rents in privately owned homes and apartments. But due to the severe lack of housing in the county, most have moved 30 miles or more away to mid-size communities in Illinois and neighboring Kentucky and Missouri.

The town begged for help replacing some of its lost housing, but the government is no longer in the business of building public housing. Instead, state and federal programs now rely on private and nonprofit developers who use complex tax-credit deals to build housing.

And though Fowler said the commission supports an expansion of affordable housing in Illinois, including for southern Illinois, these tax-credit housing models are challenging to make work in disadvantaged rural communities, as they struggle to operate at the scale needed for financial sustainability.

The housing crisis in Cairo is widespread, affecting people across the income spectrum. Home prices are low compared to the statewide average, but they often need thousands of dollars in repairs.

“When I moved back home eight years ago, I had to stay with my sister in the projects until I found somewhere to live,” said Lisa Thomas, a fifth-grade teacher at a nearby elementary school. “When I finally found somewhere to live, it took a lot of money to actually get my home into a livable condition. And so that's some of the things that you're finding, people stay with other people, because they can't find a place to stay.”

Kaneesha Mallory

Kaneesha Mallory, 34, listens to candidates for the NAACP Political Committee of Alexander-Pulaski Counties on April 25, 2024, at Cairo Junior/Senior High School. Citizens of Alexander and Pulaski counties heard from political candidates on various topics including poverty. (Photo by Lylee Gibbs, for Capitol News Illinois and the Saluki Local Reporting Lab)


Looking for solutions

Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, said that while communities must shoulder much of their own recovery work, it’s unrealistic to think they can do it without help.

“It’s really hard to think beyond that day-to-day and week-to-week basis,” he said. “Hard to get that mindset that you should be thinking a year out, five years out, because you're just so busy trying to keep a roof over your head and over your family's head.”

Merrett is not on the poverty commission but his institute is helping Cairo officials with economic development planning. It starts, he said, with changing attitudes.

“There’s kind of a negative narrative about rural communities,” Merrett said. “We’re trying to help change the way people think about the community, because many communities have been in population decline for decades.”

Audra Wilson, the poverty commission’s co-chair and the president and CEO of the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law, said the group also hopes to reframe the discussion around poverty, emphasizing systemic failures and policy decisions that have let people and communities down rather than assigning blame for their circumstances.

Rural areas, in particular, lack the resources they need, Wilson said, and the commission acknowledges that. But often, she added, there are programs to help that people do not know about. Part of the commission’s work is studying how to more effectively connect people to existing benefits.

Indeed, there are community-based programs in Alexander County. For instance, every Wednesday, several dozen people line up single-file in a Cairo parking lot and await the arrival of a bus filled with groceries. This “mobile food pantry” service is provided by Arrowleaf, a local nonprofit.

But getting the word out is hard, said Sherrie Crabb, Arrowleaf’s chief executive. “We do have some resources, but it’s just trying to find ways to educate individuals that may not use regular means of communication that you see in other areas,” Crabb said.

Jennifer Jones-Hall, Aaron Hall and Marsha Hayes

Jennifer Jones-Hall, Aaron Hall and Marsha Hayes load supplies onto the mobile food pantry bus that is departing for Cairo on Feb. 7, 2024. (Photo by Lylee Gibbs, for Capitol News Illinois and the Saluki Local Reporting Lab)


‘They don't care’

As for the commission’s future, with an impending goal of cutting deep poverty in half in less than two years, it continues to meet and develop policy solutions that it plans to present to the governor and lawmakers.

Wilson acknowledged that broader anti-poverty work is still needed. However, there have been some attempts at larger undertakings.

For instance, the state has earmarked $13 million over three years for a guaranteed income pilot program known as the Illinois Stability Investment in Family Housing program. It’s a joint effort between the poverty commission and two additional state committees tackling homelessness and hunger.

Under the pilot program, 1,125 families, selected by lottery, have received $9,500 each – one-time payments they can spend as they see fit. To qualify, individuals had to be experiencing homelessness, receiving services for housing stability and be pregnant or have at least one child living with them. It is operating in eight regions of the state – in Chicago and the surrounding areas, central Illinois and the Metro East – though families south of the St. Louis metropolitan area are not eligible.

The state has partnered with the Inclusive Economy Lab at the University of Chicago to design and evaluate the program. Preliminary findings are expected late next year, IDHS said.

Wilson said the no-strings-attached cash assistance “has been a huge game changer.” But these programs have strong detractors and statewide implementation would face significant hurdles. Asked if the Pritzker administration supports some form of a guaranteed income program, the IDHS spokesperson said that it is committed to working with lawmakers and other policy experts to “explore all options to help lift people out of poverty.”

Other big questions also remain unresolved, like how to help places like Cairo reverse decades of economic decline.

If the major industries that supported the town are gone, “Where do people go? And where do they work?” Wilson said. “These are things that you have to think about in its entirety if you're going to really be lifting families out of poverty.”

Despite the challenges that Cairo faces, it’s still home for Mallory and others like her working to rebound their town. Even as others have left, Cairo is the place she wants to live – a powerful draw, rooted in deep connections.

“I want her to be raised in Cairo because this is where our family (is),” Mallory said of her daughter. “My granny, my younger sister, those are my rocks, those are my heartbeats, those are my like, to get me through each and every single day.”

But, she said, it feels like policymakers could do more to help her community.

“Well past Springfield,” she said, echoing a common refrain around town, “they don’t care about us.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.


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