Poverty numbers climb in Knox County

A new report shows 1 in 3 people in Illinois are living in or near poverty. In Knox County particularly, the poverty rate has topped 20 percent — which means new challenges for charities and schools alike.

For a growing number of families, the FISH Food Pantry in Galesburg, Illinois, is a lifesaver.

“People are out of work, and there is more need. We keep finding more clients all the time,” said FISH treasurer Ed Bantz.

Last year, the pantry fed 16,000 people, and that number is going up.

“Serving that many people over a year’s time, I think the need speaks for itself,” said Bantz.

Because at home or at school, kids need to be fed.

“Without those basic needs being met, students cannot perform at a good level,” said Diane Vanhootegem of the Galesburg School District.

The district has seen the poverty rate go up 50 percent over the past 10 years, which means six out of every 10 students now receives free or reduced lunch.

Another poverty-linked challenge for schools is the increasing mobility rate.

“Families have to move where the employment is or where the services are that they need for their families, and so that has a significant impact on our teachers and those classrooms where kids move in and out of,” said Vanhootegem.

To meet the new needs, the district has increased staff, hiring more outreach workers and reading recovery teachers. The district’s also proving that poverty doesn’t have to equal failure.

“Even with all of that, the students’ performance on standardized tests has remained very steady, always in the 80 percent ‘meeting and exceeding’ range. That’s a huge number, because you would assume that with that significant change, that student performance would diminish greatly,” said Vanhootegem.

Both Bantz and Vanhootegem credit the community’s generosity for their organizations’ success.

Living in poverty means a family of four has an income of less than $23,000 a year. The group responsible for the study believes cuts to social services are only making the problem worse.

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