In Illinois, people are more likely to end up on food stamps than they are to find a job.
Nearly five years since the end of the Great Recession, Illinois is lagging behind the rest of the Midwest in job creation, creating an environment where opportunity and hope for a better future seem out of reach for those who are down on their luck.
Today, there are nearly 300,000 fewer Illinoisans working than in January 2008 - on top of that, there are 157,000 fewer payroll jobs in the state.
The situation is particularly dire for minorities. Fewer than half of black adults can find work, and the Latino employment rate has fallen 6.4 percentage points since 2008.
Things are so bad that food-stamp enrollment in Illinois outpaces job creation by nearly 2-to-1, and the number of Illinoisans dependent on food stamps has risen by 745,000 in the recession era.
The food-stamps benchmark, especially when compared to other Midwest states, provides troubling insight into just how desperate the situation is in Illinois.
While Illinois has gained just 250,000 payroll jobs and added 425,000 Illinoisans to the food-stamp rolls since 2010, job creation is outpacing food-stamp enrollment in every other Midwest state. Michigan, North Dakota and Missouri have all seen food-stamp enrollment decline since 2010.
This reality doesn't jive with headlines crowing about the state's dropping unemployment rate and the fanciful celebrations of state politicians.
Over the past five months, the state's jobless rate has fallen to 6.7 percent from 8.4 percent - but because of the 82,000 people who have dropped out of the workforce, the unemployment rate doesn't mean much at all. That's because unemployed people who stop looking for work aren't counted toward the unemployment rate. In fact, the share of Illinoisans successfully looking for work is at a 35-year low.
It all comes back to opportunity... or a lack thereof.
Companies aren't hiring. New businesses aren't opening up. People down on their luck can't find work -- because there simply isn't enough to go around.
Illinois has taken a backward approach to turning the tides on its jobs environment: giving big companies money to do business within state lines.
The state gives millions of dollars in tax breaks each year to giants such as CME Group ($77 million annually), Sears ($15 million annually) and Motorola ($10 million annually).
But while politicians dole out funds to well-established businesses, homegrown entrepreneurship is dwindling. In 2013, Illinois had one of the lowest rates of entrepreneurial activity in the nation, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, a leading indicator of new business creation in the United States.
These measurements matter, because nationwide nearly half of all private-sector jobs come from small businesses, and two-thirds of the jobs created in the last 20 years came from small businesses.
And so the cycle continues -- corporate handouts lead to a decrease in small-business growth, which leads to fewer jobs, which leads to fewer opportunities, meaning many are forced to turn to government assistance to get by. Government officials see an uptick in joblessness and food-stamp enrollment, and give out more corporate handouts in the hope of spurring economic growth... and the cycle repeats ad nauseam. Illinois can't carry on this way much longer.