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Poverty moves from the city to the suburbs

More immigrants and minorities with large families and limited skills are settling down in places like Cicero, Ill.

October 22, 2006|Sara Olkon and Darnell Little | Chicago Tribune

CICERO, ILL. — 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 to open.

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, the U.S. Census Bureau said. More and more, the bureau's data suggest, poverty is tied to the growing movement of immigrants and minorities to the suburbs, especially Latinos.

In Cicero, Latinos grew from 77% of the population in 2000 to 85% in 2005, while the town's poverty rate rose from 15.5% to 19%. The poverty rate among Latinos was even higher last year, at 20%.

It is not a lack of jobs but the influx of a largely low-skilled workforce 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 the suburbs and, to a lesser degree, in some wealthier towns.

"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."

Sergio Guadarrama, 32, a native of Mexico City, begins most days perched on a road to a Home Depot.

He and about a dozen 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 as much as $130.

Bad days are not surprising. Never mind that few contractors provide worker's compensation or other benefits.

"Nothing is secure here," said Guadarrama, who tucked his hair under a Chicago Blackhawks cap. His dusty work boots and cracked thumbs illustrated his five years as a hired hand.

With his wife and two children nearby in a $650-a-month apartment, a few days of skimmed wages or heavy rain could spell 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.

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."

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