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Illinois tax holiday and local nonprofits help with back-to-school spending

Crowds form at the annual Backpack Peoria school supplies giveaway event.
Dream Center Peoria
Crowds form at the annual Backpack Peoria school supplies giveaway event.

On Aug. 4, Gov. JB Pritzker announced a 10-day tax holiday on school supplies from Aug. 5 to Aug. 15. The intention is to help families send their kids back to school prepared.

“Whether it’s book bags or calculators, writing tablets, notebooks or binders, folders, clothing and footwear,” said Pritzker. “If our students need it for school, it’s covered by this tax cut.”

The cut lowers the state sales tax on school supplies from 6.25% to 1.25%. For perspective, a $200 purchase of supplies would be $10 less.

As Bradley University assistant professor of economics Colin Corbett points out, this isn’t particularly drastic.

“If you saw a 5% off tag, that wouldn’t really change your behavior,” said Corbett. “But like, it adds up, it’s nice.”

A glance at a Peoria Public School supply list shows around 30 to 40 unique items needed for any given grade. Corbett recommends sticking to the lists and avoiding stockpiling during this last weekend of the tax holiday.

“One of the main ways to personally counteract inflation is to just buy less stuff that you don’t need,” said Corbett. “So when you’re thinking about, like, which school supplies do I really need? Which clothing does my kid really need? You can always sort of buy a little less. And if everyone buys a little less, that decreases inflation.”

Though Corbett said things like apparel and school supplies aren’t inflated to record highs of 8% or 9% like we’re seeing on commodities like gas and groceries, it all strains wallets.

“The last time that we saw inflation anywhere near the current levels, is sort of the late 70’s going into the early 80’s,” said Corbett. “Back then it was very different because inflation was just sort of how we understood the economy to work. Whereas nowadays, we sort of know the external factors that are causing inflation.”

He said some of those factors include global conflicts like the war in Ukraine, pandemic supply chain woes and decreasing workforce participation. With all these interlocking factors, a 5% tax cut won’t be enough for every family. Fortunately, some local organizations stepped up to help.

“We stepped into this year, we had 1,750 bags,” said Andy King, executive director of the nonprofit Dream Center Peoria. “They were all gone by 10 to 12, which we were finishing at 12.”

In 21 years of doing the Backpack Peoria event, handing out school supply-filled backpacks to families, the Dream Center has given away 61,000 bags, almost always to the very last one.

King saids the signs of increased need this year are everywhere.

“With our homeless shelter that we have here, for women and children, we have had more people come into the shelter than ever before,” said King. “Averaging 100 to 110 people every night for the last four or five weeks. Normally, we’re averaging 70.”

The amount of need at this year’s backpack giveaway is no exception.

“We just heard overwhelming thanks and appreciation from the moms, from the grandparents, from father and dads,” said King. “We hear that every year, but this year, the way bags went so quickly, you know, we’ve felt we’re really filling the need that is really hitting people at this time.”

It was a similar experience for an organization holding its first backpack giveaway this year.

The Tri-County Urban League, in partnership with the Peoria Fire Department, gave away 350 backpacks at the first-ever “Fill the Fire Truck."

President and CEO Dawn Harris Jeffries said preparations started months ago.

“It started out in the cold months and we were freezing,” said Jeffries. “Plenty of coffee, us at the firehouse. I, you know, wanted to be a fireman and get on the truck, all that stuff. Anyway, we got together and just started a whole lot of planning.”

Those hours of planning paid off.

“This little boy just sat on, we have couches, he sat on the couch and was sort of doing an inventory. He’s pulling stuff out and he was just so, so excited,” said Jeffries. “Then, there are a couple of them who put their backpacks on, and we were doing STEM experiments…and a couple of them wouldn’t take their backpacks off.”

As Jeffries pointed out, new school supplies can be a source of pride and dignity for a student. That’s just the start of what it takes to make a child feel comfortable and secure at school.

“You know we hear about bullying. We hear about so many other things and traumatic experiences,” said Jeffries. “School supplies, you know, we want to provide them so that they don’t have to be upset that this is just one more thing they don’t have.”

It's an ongoing process. Jeffries said parents still call looking for school supplies on an almost daily basis. The Urban League has a list of around 200 kids who still need supplies. But even in the face of so much need, there’s still many moments of joy.

“You know the best thing ever, for an agency like ours, is to see the expression on the babies’ faces when they say, ‘Wow! There’s so much stuff in here!’” Jeffries said.

If you’re looking for assistance, or a way to get involved, you can learn more about the Dream Center here and the Tri-County Urban League here.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.