Coles County food insecurity rises; poverty highest level in area

Cassie Buchman, City Editor

For the past three to four years, Coles County has had one of the highest levels of poverty in the area.

In Coles County, 22 percent of individuals, 13 percent of all families and 22.5 percent of all families with children live in poverty.

Michael Gillespie, an assistant sociology professor who is also an expert on poverty in Coles County, said the causes of this depend on who is asked.

“A lot of it has to do with job availability, having lower-wage jobs,” he said.

Some of these lower paying jobs include those who work in hospitals that are not doctors or part of the hospital administration, and even those who are not professors or administration in the university, such as Building Service Workers.

“Some people say people make bad decisions, or they’re lazy—I don’t see it,” Gillespie said. “I see people work, go out every day, and do what’s best for their family.”

Part of the reason poverty is so high in Coles County is that it has less farmland than surrounding areas.

“The government makes sure farms stay in business by subsidises,” Gillespie said. “This helps keep farm families afloat, guarantees crops in the spring.”

Gillespie also said not a lot of jobs are available that pay a living wage.

“Once you get out of Charleston, Mattoon, there’s farmland,” he said. “There’s not a lot of opportunity.”

More manufacturing jobs used to be available, but a lot of them went out of business or left, along with many restaurants and stores.

“When you don’t have enough people to buy what you’re selling, it’s hard to stay in business,” Gillespie said. “This problem is not unique to the county; it’s been dragging out all over the Midwest.”

Gillespie said the number of people in poverty has stayed equal in the last year.

“That’s pretty nice, because it had been going up for several years,” he said.

Despite the unchanged poverty rates, food insecurity levels have become higher by 2 percent, and 42.5 percent of individuals in Coles County do not know if they will have nutritionally adequate and safe food on a day-to-day basis.

“At the poverty level, people have access to a lot of social safety nets, such as healthcare, housing, among other things,” Gillespie said. “When people are at the level of food insecurity, their only real option is charitable donations.”

He said food stamps do not cover everyone at risk, and though people might find low wage jobs, it is still not enough to alleviate food insecurity on a daily basis.

“Going hungry is one of the greatest risks,” Gillespie said. “There are people going to bed who don’t know if they’re going to get breakfast, and if they are, is it going to be oatmeal, or a bag of Twinkies.”

Although college students are not the ones typically associated with poverty, they still do have financial problems.

“People underestimate how much students struggle,” Gillespie said. “Many are on work study, or working minimum wage jobs.”

He said some may have to choose between paying tuition and keeping the heat in their apartment.

Impoverished people can keep their status well hidden, making it hard to figure out if someone is living in poverty.

“They have access to a nice suit, can keep themselves clean,” Gillespie said. “No one would even know you struggle on a daily basis.”

Some of the biggest challenges include the stigma poor people face, thinking that it is their fault they are impoverished.

“There’s very little respect or love for people in poverty,” Gillespie said. “People need to get over themselves and learn how to help others.”

He said people can learn to do this by stopping to ask people about their situation instead of assuming.

Impoverished people also have issues getting to different resources that could help them, as no public transportation system exists for those who do not have a way to places that could help them.

Even with these challenges, places around Coles County exist to help people living in poverty.

Places such as the Soup Stop at Otterbein United Methodist Church, the food pantries at Charleston and Mattoon High School, the Mattoon Community Food Center, Mattoon Christian Church Food Pantry, and the Charleston Area Churches Food Pantry are areas in Charleston and Mattoon that offer food assistance.

Cassie Buchman can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].