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Illinois Grocery Tax Makes Controversial Comeback

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Friday, June 9, 2023   

Most Illinois residents will soon be paying the one-percent state sales tax on their groceries again.

Governor JB Pritzker's temporary tax relief is set to expire July 1 following a one-year suspension. It covered what the state refers to as "low-rate" grocery items, not the "high-rate" foods and beverages taxed at the full 6.25%.

Manuel Villaneuva, western regional director for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a nonprofit advocating for workers in the restaurant industry, said the return of the 1% tax can be tough for the low-wage workforce, as pay is still relatively low since the pandemic, even as Illinois rents continue to climb.

He pointed out inflation is not making things any easier.

"Those little pennies on the dollar -- once you go to the grocery store -- for a family of four that is an average of $500 every two weeks," Villaneuva observed. "That can be really detrimental for their expenses."

Although many believe exempting groceries from state sales tax bases has a progressive effect, research from the Tax Foundation suggests it is not the case. It called grocery exemptions a middle-income, not a low-income, benefit, noting middle earners can more efficiently recoup the expense through grocery tax credits.

There is always some confusion about low-tax-rate versus high-tax-rate foods, based on the state's guidelines for what qualifies as a "prepared" food product.

Villanueva covers California and Minnesota as well as Illinois, and asserted although all states tax prepared foods, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish what is considered a "prepared" food.

"The only thing that I've heard of is maybe like a service charge for service workers and food workers, but never a tax on food," Villanueva emphasized. "If something like this were to happen in Illinois, you know, it would spark the flame. It's not sustainable for a lot of states, and it's not fair."

For people located within the Illinois Regional Transportation Authority or Metro-East Mass Transit District, the 1% local tax on food was never suspended. Thirty-seven states do not tax groceries at all, and of the 13 states doing so, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas and Oklahoma provide a tax credit or rebate to offset costs for lower-income households.

Disclosure: Restaurant Opportunities Center United contributes to our fund for reporting on Civil Rights, Human Rights/Racial Justice, Livable Wages/Working Families, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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