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Nearly half of Chicago households struggle to afford basic necessities: report

Across the city, many households don’t earn enough to cover essentials like housing, child care, food, transportation and health care while saving for the future, according to a study by the United Way.

Princess Gonalzes, 36, left and Maribel Saenz, 38, talk about raising three daughters while working four jobs and clocking in 80 hours a week — and still struggling to make ends meet.
Princess Gonzales (left), 36, and Maribel Saenz, 38, talk about raising three daughters while working four jobs and clocking in 80 hours a week — and still struggling to make ends meet.
Ahlaam Delange/Sun-Times

Soon after Princess Gonzales started dating Maribel Saenz three years ago, disaster struck: 240 pounds of tiles fell on Gonzales’ left knee, cutting her tile setter apprenticeship short.

Gonzales earned enough through the apprenticeship to support Saenz. The two of them together now work around 80 hours a week while raising three daughters — and still struggle to make ends meet.

“We’re living day to day,” said Saenz.

Gonzales and Saenz aren’t the only Chicago family struggling to afford the basics.

In Chicago, 44% of all households don’t earn enough to cover essentials like housing, child care, food, transportation and health care while saving for the future, according to a study published Wednesday by United Way, one of the country’s largest nonprofit organizations.

The report aims to provide a clearer picture of how many families in Illinois struggle to make ends meet even if they live above the official poverty line and don’t qualify for federal or state benefits like Medicaid and SNAP.

To do so, researchers collected data from a dozen state and federal government sources to figure out how many people are ALICE, which stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.”

“The federal poverty line can be really misleading. It assumes costs of living are the same across the country, which doesn’t really make sense,” said Dr. Ashley Anglin, the director of research and strategic analysis at United for ALICE.

“We determined what was the bare-bones costs of living in every county and major city in the state and figured out the number of households in poverty as well as that portion that we call ALICE in each.”

The share of ALICE households — Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed — is greater in majority black and Latino neighborhoods across Chicago.
The share of ALICE households — Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed — is greater in majority black and Latino neighborhoods across Chicago. The numbers of the map correspond to the 77 community areas.
United Way

The report — prepared with input from experts at DePaul University, the Federal Reserve of Chicago and the Illinois Department of Employment Security, among other local groups — shows how economic hardship mirrors patterns of racial segregation in Chicago.

In the Near North Side, for instance, a quarter of households struggle to afford basic needs, compared to 70% in South Shore. In Brighton Park, a neighborhood in the Southwest Side where Gonzales, Saenz and their three daughters share a three-bedroom apartment, 60% of households are ALICE.

“Our work illustrates just how noticeable inequality is for people who live in Chicago, how there’s just a different reality depending on where you live in the city,” Anglin said.

Across Illinois, while 12% of families are in poverty, 36% are ALICE, according to the report. And like in Chicago, some areas of the state struggle a lot more than others. In Waukegan, for example, 57% of households fall below the threshold, compared to 18% in Naperville.

A third of households in Illinois live below the ALICE threshold, meaning they struggle to afford basic necessities.
United Way

Their findings point to an uneven economic recovery in the decade after the Great Recession. While the vast majority of working-age people in Illinois are employed, the report found that 56% of those jobs pay under $20 an hour.

And as wages stagnate, job insecurity is up across the board, making it hard for workers to pay off rising monthly expenses while saving enough money for a secure future.

“There are so many families who aren’t in deep poverty but make a litany of tough decisions every day,” Anglin said. “Families are asking themselves if they should get groceries this week or buy medicine. Get the car fixed or take your kids out of day care?”

Zaira Medel (from left), Princess Gonzales, Naiovy Medel, Maribel Saenz and Arlett Medel at their apartment in Brighton Park.
Zaira Medel (from left), Princess Gonzales, Naiovy Medel, Maribel Saenz and Arlett Medel at their apartment in Brighton Park.
Carlos Ballesteros/Sun-Times

After dropping off their daughters at school, Gonzales and Saenz rush to clean Airbnb apartments or make deliveries through Uber Eats.

The two are also paid canvassers for a U.S. Census awareness campaign through the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a community organization.

Four days out of the week, Gonzales works at their youngest daughter’s elementary school for two hours in the morning as a teacher’s aide, which pays her $500 a semester.

In the meantime, Saenz prepares food for the day at home and sometimes heads out to clean apartments on her own. “Sometimes we only get one unit a week. It’s so unstable,” she said.

Gonzales is in the process of becoming a real estate broker, a career change she said will “give her family more financial stability.” But she knows it’ll be a while until Saenz and her can rest their heads.

“I’m from the Philippines and she’s from Mexico, so we know what intense poverty looks like,” Gonzales said. “I’m grateful for what we have, but I’m hoping it’s not this hard forever.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.