Can you live in Chicago on under $30,000 a year?

When we data nerds at The Chicago Reporter saw the New York Times’ swanky census map last month, we were all drooling. And because you can look at any street, anywhere in the nation and see what’s happening where you live, it got me thinking. We here at the Reporter are always analyzing the city. But how often do we look at our own blocks?

So, I gave us all an assignment: look at your own neighborhood and tell me what you see. Throughout this week, we’ll be showing you what we found, and we hope you’ll share with us what you find out about where you live.

Because I made everyone else do it, it’s only fair that I go first. When I look at my own neighborhood, on the border between Lincoln Square and Albany Park on the city’s North West Side, I see a pretty typical melting pot. Fairly racially diverse, with a pretty middle of the road income. What surprised me was when I took a look at one of the NYT’s income maps – how many people make under $30,000 a year where I live. Take a look:

When I first saw this number, I was pretty surprised. I mean, 36 percent of us are living under $30,000 a year. I say “us” because that’s what my husband and I have been doing since we moved to Chicago three years ago. With me going from job to job (note: journalism jobs aren’t the most lucrative) and him in school, our budget has been tight. I guess I didn’t realize so many of our neighbors were in the same situation.

But, nationwide, 36 percent is about average. In fact, when I look at where we used to live – a somewhat sleepy small city called Mount Pleasant, Michigan – there, 68 percent of people lived on less than $30,000 a year. The funny thing is, there we had two cars, an apartment more than twice the size of ours today, and a good amount of disposable income.

Which is why mine and my neighbors situation can be so stressful sometimes. They say your rent should only be 30 percent of your income, but not here in my neighborhood. If you make $30,000 a year, 30 percent of your monthly income is $750. But in my census tract, the median rent is $894. So rent is eating up a big piece of the pie every month for many of us.

Of course, many of our neighbors have kids. They have car payments. Medical bills. They’re making minimum wage, which shakes out to far less than $30,000 a year. So while I feel like this too shall pass, I doubt everyone feels that confident in their financial future.

When we look around Chicago, the numbers vary. A lot of our city lives on less than $30,000 a year – a lot. In tract 4008, for example, near Washington Park, a whopping 82 percent of people are in that group. On much of the South Side, at least half of people are making less than $30,000. But some tracts see only single digits. Like tracts 623 and 719, both in Lincoln Park, where just 3 percent and 5 percent of residents fall into that category.

One of the most popular blog posts I’ve written was on the so-called “poverty trap.” It’s the idea an economist came up with that until you pass $40,000 a year, every dollar that you earn may not really help your income grow. A raise at work means a reduction in food stamps or a cut to your child care subsidy, which pretty much eats up that raise altogether. When people start making over $40,000, they feel their raises the way they should. But before you get to that point, it’s easy to get stuck in a trap between rising wages and subsidies that are supposed to help poor families move forward.

I can’t help but wonder how many of us are living in that trap. In my neighborhood, it’s 36 percent.

What’s going on in your neighborhood? Take a look at your census tract with the New York Times’ slick map
and tell us what you see. Check back the rest of this week to see more
about where we live and how our neighborhoods are changing.

Filed under: Housing

Tags: Census, housing, New York Times, poverty


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  • As a former Catholic school teacher, YES! And you don't even need a roommate or live in the ghetto.

  • This is interesting. I was able to live comfortable when I moved back to Chicago after a 2 year mistake in Aurora and I was only making 23.5K/yr. I was living in the Neighborhood I am now and was comfortable. Would i do it again? HELL NO! I was not going out as much as I do now and there is no way I could live like that again :-( Hell, i would not be able to pay the rent that I do not on that salary :-( (still not making a lot but more then that).

  • Wow, I really have respect for you knowing you chose your career as a passion and are able to make it on that amount as a family of two (if I'm reading this correctly).

    Now off to stalk my block . . .

  • Fascinating stuff!

  • Great link. I'm looking at everywhere I've ever lived. Depressing to realize that in most of them (and these were pleasant middle class type places) people's incomes have declined about 10% in the last decade.

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