This Thanksgiving, nearly 1M Illinois households forced to rely on food stamps

This Thanksgiving, nearly 1M Illinois households forced to rely on food stamps

The failure of lawmakers to enact policies that spark growth will render millions of Illinoisans dependent on assistance for meals this holiday season.

For too many Illinois families this year, Thanksgiving dinners will be restricted to whatever can be purchased using a state-issued Link card.

More than 966,000 Illinois households were receiving benefits as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in September, the most recent month for which data is available.

In September 2010, following the end of the Great Recession, only 849,000 Illinois households relied on SNAP. Since then, more than 100,000 Illinois households have been added to the SNAP rolls – a 13.8 percent increase.

The total number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits in Illinois stands at over 1,860,000, or more than 14 percent of the population. That’s the second-highest share in the region, barely better than Kentucky, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Illinois sees second-highest rate rate of food stamp dependency compared with neighboring states

Officials elected to represent these families have continually failed to introduce policies conducive to economic growth – policies that would furnish the Prairie State with fulfilling job opportunities. As a result, a sizeable swath of the population has been forced to turn to government assistance.

Illinois’ economic health isn’t exactly something residents should be thankful for this year.

A comparative assessment

In 2014, Illinois’ food assistance level reached record heights. At the height of the crisis in December 2014, the state reported more than 1,730,000 households enrolled in SNAP. This happened two years after the state broke the 1 million households barrier just in time for Thanksgiving in 2012.

That Illinois’ recovery has managed to render a net increase in SNAP-dependent individuals since 2010 is no minor concern. Neighboring states such as Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin have all seen individual SNAP enrollment decline over the same time period – no surprise, as Illinois’ jobs growth has consistently lagged behind all three.

Illinois SNAP enrollment grows as largest neighbors see decline


For a view less grim, Illinoisans might consider looking to their east.

Indiana, which has a population about half of Illinois’, managed to shrink SNAP enrollment to less than 650,000 recipients as of September 2017. But even accounting for the population disparity, Indiana’s SNAP enrollment trend shows a more promising pattern than that of Illinois. In addition to dropping more than 8 percent from September 2016, Indiana has seen a steep 24 percent decline in SNAP recipients since September 2010.

While Illinois saw a 3.5 percent drop in SNAP recipients between September 2016 and September 2017, Illinois has actually managed a 1 percent increase in individual SNAP enrollment since September 2010. And measured by households, the Prairie State has seen a 14 percent spike since 2010.


Even next to a state closer in population, Illinois’ recovery drags in comparison. Michigan, another state that has weathered a bitter recovery, saw its number of food assistance recipients decline to approximately 1.3 million in September 2017 – a decrease of almost 200,000 from September 2015. About 13.5 percent of Michigan’s population still receives food assistance – not necessarily a dramatic improvement on Illinois’ 14.5 percent.

But the trends diverge quite strikingly. While Illinois has seen an increase in SNAP recipients since the end of the recession, Michigan has seen the number of individuals relying on food assistance drop by more than 29 percent since September 2010.


Recipients of state food assistance account for about 12 percent of Wisconsinites. In September 2017, the number of food-assisted households was less than 340,000 – a 3.6 percent drop since January. While Wisconsin’s food stamp caseload hasn’t fluctuated as much as some other Midwestern states throughout the decade, its long-term trajectory of dependency is one that bends downward.

Since September 2010, the number of food assistance recipients in Wisconsin has declined by nearly 12 percent, offering a more promising path forward than Illinois has been able to claim.

Remaining neighbor states 

Of all Illinois’ bordering states, only Kentucky has seen a higher percentage of its population dependent on food stamps than Illinois. By a fraction of a percentage, Kentucky’s food-assisted population hovers above Illinois at 14.7 percent. Just over 12 percent of Missourians are dependent on food assistance, and slightly above 11.4 percent of Iowans.

Lack of opportunity

Illinois jobs growth has persistently lagged the rest of the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.

This is to say nothing of the increasing number of people who’ve stopped looking for work altogether. Indeed, despite modest gains in employment through 2017, the Illinois labor force declined by nearly 100,000 workers from January to October, according to BLS data. This stands in contrast to the national trend.

While a weak jobs climate forces many families in need to seek SNAP benefits, there are other policies that help explain Illinois’ relatively high share of food-stamp enrollment as well.

Illinois is one of the few states in the Midwest that doesn’t include a work or job-training requirement for non-elderly, able-bodied SNAP recipients. Critics allege that such standards exploit the SNAP-dependent. But the opposite is true. One possible explanation for Illinois’ labor force dropout is what the Wall Street Journal has called a skills shortage.

A smart policy would encourage aspiring workers who’ve fallen behind – such as those who have enrolled in SNAP – to seek out the skills necessary to rebound and succeed in an advanced economy.

The comeback story

Springfield’s legislative agenda needs to be aimed at creating economic conditions that invite wealth creation and minimize dependence.

First on the to-do list would be to tame lawmakers’ trigger-happy tax impulse. The vicious cycle goes as follows: Profligate spending leads to debt, debt inspires more taxes, and upped taxes justify more spending. Wash, rinse and repeat. Illinois has suffered from this – and Illinoisans are fleeing from it at alarming rates. A more moderate tax system would attract taxpayers and win the capital investments of prospective employers.

Illinois tax reform must include real property tax relief, including leveling the playing field for taxpayers in contract negotiations and empowering local leaders to get costs under control.

The General Assembly must also come to terms with the unsustainability of the public-worker pension system. Illinois’ pension crisis could be tempered by implementing a sensible 401(k)-style alternative for all future state employees. This alternative system has already been introduced – with success – for tens of thousands of state university workers.

By overcoming its dependence on tax hikes and out-of-control spending, the Land of Lincoln would go a long way in liberating its residents from dependency as well.

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