Sara Olkon and Darnell Little, Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2006
Bertha Mares, a mother of four, has neither a job nor a husband. A quiet pragmatism settled over her on a recent afternoon as she waited 20 minutes for a food pantry in Cicero to open its doors.
Eventually, the 30-year-old widow left with a plastic sack of groceries: canned chicken breast, soup, Hamburger Helper, Triscuits and mashed potatoes. Mares relies on this sort of aid, along with food stamps and $1,200 a month in Social Security benefits.
At a time of relative prosperity in the region, Mares is poor, and used to it. For her, seeking hand-me-downs and help from relatives is part of the routine.
In much of suburban Chicago, poverty rates are rising, according to information released by the U.S. Census Bureau late last month. More and more, the data suggest, that is tied to the growing movement of immigrants and minorities, especially Hispanics, to the suburbs.
In Cicero, Hispanics grew from 77 percent of the population in 2000 to 85 percent in 2005, while the town’s poverty rate rose from 15.5 percent to 19 percent. And the poverty rate among just Hispanics was even higher last year, at 20 percent.
It is not a lack of jobs, but the influx of a largely low-skilled workforce, trying to find its way in a service economy, that explains the shift, said Paul Jargowsky, an associate professor of political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas who tracks poverty rates around the country.
Several studies in recent years indicate that pattern is playing out in communities around Chicago and other cities, both in inner-ring suburbs and, to a lesser degree, some wealthier towns.
The recent census figures show the poverty rate in suburban Cook County rose to 8.2 percent in 2005, up from 6.4 percent in 1999. The figure was 5.3 percent in 1989.
“It’s big families and a lot of people who don’t have tons of education,” said Cris Pope, director of the Interfaith Leadership Project in Cicero. “That dictates what kinds of jobs they can get.”
Jobs like the one Sergio Guadarrama works, if he can. Most days, the 32-year-old native of Mexico City begins his day perched by the roadside leading to the Home Depot on Cicero Avenue. He and a dozen or so other day laborers jockey for the chance to install drywall or repair a roof for a stranger. On a good day — when a contractor pays him as promised — he can make $130.
Bad days are not surprising. Never mind that few contractors provide worker’s compensation or other benefits.
With his wife and two children nearby in their $650-per-month Cicero apartment, a few days of shorted wages or heavy rain could spell big trouble.
The allure of more affordable housing in a nice setting is a major drawing card for many suburbs, but even in a blue-collar town like Cicero, the prices are high enough to drive some to extremes.
David Boyle, a community activist who has lived in Cicero since 1982, said he has seen single-family homes house as many as 20 people.
“You can walk into almost any bungalow in Cicero and you will find that the front room and dining room are crowded with mattresses,” he said. “The landlords have figured out that they can charge $150 a month for a little baby mattress for an adult male.”
Cicero town spokesman Dan Proft called the new census numbers “a good news-bad news type of thing.”
“More people are coming to seek opportunity, [but] they come with very little,” he said. “It takes awhile to get your feet under you.”