Carolyn Schutz has a college degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee, plus decades of experience as a teacher and a business manager. She actively searches for full-time work, but the 66-year-old Wheaton woman has been able to land only a part-time administrative job that pays $8.25 an hour.
Her monthly take-home pay is around $350, she said. It's made basic necessities, like the furnished room she rents and gas for her car, almost impossible to afford, despite government assistance and help from suburban charities.
A haircut or a $1 cup of McDonald's coffee are luxuries.
"It's been a struggle," said Schutz, who is single and has no children, "and I know I'm not alone."
She's not. At least 20 percent of those living in the six suburban counties were poor or living near poverty in 2011, according to a report released today by Chicago-based Social IMPACT Research Center, a program of the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights.
"Poor," as defined in the report, is an annual income of under $23,021 for a family of four. Near poverty is between $23,021 and roughly $46,000 a year for a family of four.
The numbers of suburban poor have been on an upward trend since before the recession and continue to increase. Between 2010 and 2011, the percentage of poor or those near poverty increased by 24 percent in Lake County, 15 percent in Kane County, 14 percent in DuPage County, 10 percent in McHenry County and 6 percent in Cook County, the report found. In Will County, the number of people in poverty dropped 1.5 percent.
The data shows 33 percent of Illinois residents -- one out of every three people -- falls into one of those two categories.
"It's the highest number we've seen," said Amy Terpstra, assistant director of Social IMPACT Research Center who helped research the report. "It's increased a lot since 2000. It's hard to imagine that so many of our neighbors are struggling to make ends meet."
Even a "near poverty" income isn't enough to scrape by in the suburbs. It takes between $56,000 and $65,000 for a single-parent household with two children to cover housing, food, a car, health care and a few miscellaneous expenses like a phone, the report found.
The suburbs pose unique challenges for the poor because of limited transportation and social services, and Terpstra said it's often more difficult for women, who comprise 55 percent of the poor in Illinois.
They're more likely to have caregiving responsibilities that take them out of the workforce, and since they earn less, they have less retirement money and Social Security.
"The one trend is an increase in single female heads of household poverty. A lot of it probably has to do with more single female heads of households, period," she said.
The report also stated:
• One in four Illinois households does not have enough money saved to protect it from a sudden drop in income.
• Medical problems caused 62 percent of personal bankruptcies filed in the United States in 2007.
• Workers with a high school diploma earn 7 percent less now than they did 40 years ago (adjusted for inflation).
• In Illinois, there are only 59 affordable rental units for every 100 low-income renter households.
The reasons for the growing poverty are as complex as the solutions. Jobs are a big issue in the suburbs, Terpstra said. Most available jobs are low-paying, part-time, service industry jobs. Even full-time jobs might not come with guaranteed hours or family-supporting benefits such as health insurance, she said.
"That's what's driving poverty in the suburbs," she said. "It's not just about unemployment. It's about the quality of jobs that are out there, too."
Lower incomes combined with rising costs of everything -- food, health care and housing among them -- are crushing people in the suburbs, according to the report. It's not the people you might think, either: Most poor in Illinois are native-born and white, and many are female and children.
The Social IMPACT Research Center cites numerous ways to address poverty, including raising the minimum wage, expanding access to retirement and college savings programs, and fully implementing the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion and state-based health insurance exchange.
Schutz is reaching out to legislators, begging them not to cut federal and state programs that help people like her who are living on the brink. She asks people to consider volunteering at places like the People's Resource Center in Wheaton, Loaves & Fishes pantry in Naperville, and other local charities that do so much for hardworking people who have fallen on hard times.
Schutz finds fewer work options and less interest from employers as she gets older. The waitressing jobs she once relied on for extra income are no longer possible because of her painful arthritic knees.
She said she gets worn down worrying about how she's going to pay the next month's rent, afford an unexpected car repair, or find a better job so she can have extra money for things like birthday presents for her nieces and nephews. Lately, she said, while choking back tears, all she can do is buy them used books that they've asked for.
"I'm still very hopeful that I'll be able to get a full-time job with benefits. But it gets harder and harder to believe in yourself when no one is willing to hire you," she said. "Planning for the future is very difficult. I can't even think ahead that far now because I'm struggling."