Like much of the country, counties in northwestern Illinois have seen a spike in the number of food stamp recipients since 2000.
In 2000, 3.6 percent of Whiteside County’s population received help from the federal government’s food stamp program, now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In 2007, just as the recession was starting, the number had risen to 7.9 percent. By 2011, it was 12.8 percent.
County-by-county information nationally was compiled by Robert Gallardo, an associate professor with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
Whiteside County’s numbers are similar to those in Carroll, Ogle and Bureau counties. But not Lee County, where the number rose from 3.2 percent to 4.5 percent from 2000 to 2007. By 2011, it was 6.2 percent, less than half of Whiteside County’s number.
The reason for the difference is unclear, especially given that Lee and Whiteside counties are demographically similar. One small factor is that Dixon has a prison with 2,400 inmates, none of whom receive food stamps. Excluding the inmates, the percentage of food stamp recipients in Lee County would rise only slightly.
The jobless rates in the two counties are about the same. Lee County’s median household income, though, is nearly 10 percent higher.
Dixon Mayor Jim Burke said he had no idea why Lee County would have a lower percentage of food stamp recipients.
Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder website, which distributed Gallardo’s numbers, said the stigma associated with getting food stamps might change from one community to the next, which could explain, in part, the difference between Whiteside and Lee counties.
Whatever the case, the number of food stamp recipients has skyrocketed nearly everywhere, including in Illinois.
Part of the reason is the increased awareness about the food stamp program, which means more people are applying, said Amy Terpstra, associate director of the Social Impact Research Center at the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance.
“There is a decreased stigma around using food stamps,” she said. “There was a real effort to help people not feel bad about using the program. It is there to help in times of economic need.”
The other reason, she said, is that poverty has risen.
“In Illinois, our unemployment rate is higher than other places,” Terpstra said. “We just haven’t seen dramatic declines.”
In the Sauk Valley
The percentage of counties' populations that benefit from food stamps:
County 2000 2007 2011
Bureau 3.4% 7.6% 11.4%
Carroll 4.9% 8.8% 13.3%
Lee 3.2% 4.5% 6.2%
Ogle 2.9% 7.8% 14.3%
Whiteside 3.6% 7.9% 12.8%
Selected Illinois counties
The percentage of selected counties' populations that benefit from food stamps:
Rock Island 14.2%