New Great Cities Institute report highlights Household Stressors Tied to Poverty

Life has treated comparatively well most of those who are healthy, employed, and well educated.  But even those of us who are doing pretty well often find ourselves part of families or households where a loved one faces one or more significant challenges even if we may not. A new study from UIC’s Great Cities Institute shows that significant stress on households is a common problem across the Chicago area, and not just because we’re worried about the economy. The “household stress index” counts the number of households experiencing various stressors such as unemployment, lack of education, recent divorce, a member with one or more disabilities, lack of insurance, seniors lacking younger helpers, or lack of ability to speak English. When it’s all added up, we find that only 22% of Chicago-area households lack at least one of these stressors.

Most households find a way to deal with a single problem when everything else is going pretty well, but when the problems start to accumulate, particularly when there isn’t a lot of money, life can get hard for everyone in the household. The study found a high correspondence of the presence of household stressors with low income. Almost every household with no stressors lives at least 300% above the poverty line and most at 4 or 5 times the poverty line. On the other hand, of those households that are 200% below the poverty line: 90% have 6 or 7 stressors; 94 % with 8 stressors lived; and 100% have 9 stressors.

Household stress can either cause or result from poverty. For instance, having people in the household who have a serious disability, who were never educated past elementary school or who lack ability to speak English, can lead to poverty. Low-income households are more likely to have children that attend poorer schools, to lack health insurance or have unattended seniors.

Higher-income households can afford nursing care for an elder relative, tutoring for a child behind in school, quality child care, or have strong health care plans through their employer(s). But low-income households depend upon state and federal governments to help with each of these services when they must have them.   Seniors and young people are more likely to live in households with more stressors, but households headed by middle-aged people also experience them.

Households with the highest numbers of stressors are more likely to be found in Chicago, but the Cook County suburbs and Collar Counties have about equal shares of households with two to four stressors.  Cuts over the last several decades to a wide variety of social services have consequently hit Chicago harder but, if they persist, will eventually affect people across the region.

A recent survey from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University found that approximately 20% of Illinois residents believed that they had been hurt by the recent budget stalemate in the areas of social services generally, public education, mental health or drug treatment, child care services, or housing or utility assistance, or real or threatened job loss. Many more may have been affected by program cutbacks resulting from the impasse but were unaware that the state provided the underlying support for a service valued by them.

Twenty percent may not sound like a lot at first glance, but consider that about 20% of Chicago area households suffer at least 4 or more stress indicators and that most of those households live in or near poverty. The 20% who reported feeling the impact of government cuts are likely the people who need the help the most.

About the Author:
James Lewis, GCI Senior Research Specialist