Poverty pervades the suburbs

@CNNMoney September 23, 2011: 5:11 PM ET
poverty, suburbia

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Guess where most people in poverty live? Hint: It's not in the inner cities or rural America.

It's in the idyllic suburbs.

A record 15.4 million suburban residents lived below the poverty line last year, up 11.5% from the year before, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of Census data released Thursday. That's one-third of the nation's poor.

And their ranks are swelling fast, as jobs disappear and incomes decline amid the continued weak economy.

Since 2000, the number of suburban poor has skyrocketed by 53%, battered by the two recessions that wiped out many manufacturing jobs early on, and low-wage construction and retail positions more recently.

America's cities, meanwhile, had 12.7 million people in poverty last year, up about 5% from the year before and 23% since 2000. The remaining 18 million poor folks in the U.S. are roughly split between smaller metro areas and rural communities.

"We think of poverty as a really urban or ultra-rural phenomenon, but it's not," said Elizabeth Kneebone, senior research associate at Brookings. "It's increasingly a suburban issue."

Suburbia's population has boomed among all classes in recent decades as job growth shifted from central cities to their outskirts. Low-wage workers were needed to service this burgeoning number of residents and companies.

Suburbia became home to the greatest concentration of impoverished residents by 2005, Kneebone said. That stemmed in part from the collapse of the manufacturing industry based outside Midwestern cities. The loss of those jobs contributed to pushing many into poverty.

The Great Recession, however, accelerated the rise of the suburban poor, as it did the overall poverty rate.

The downturn also shifted where in suburbia poverty was intensifying. The collapse of the housing market caused the ranks of the poor to spike in Sun Belt communities, such as those surrounding Lakeland, Fla., and Riverside, Calif. Many low-income people had moved there during the boom to make money building and caring for homes or working in the retailers and restaurants that cropped up to service the new residents.

Who are the suburban poor?

The face of the suburban poor is diverse.

To be sure, there were many suburbanites entrenched in poverty even before 2000. Nearly 10 million people fell below the poverty line at the start of the last decade.

They were then joined by new immigrants, who increasingly skipped the cities and moved directly to their outskirts in search of plentiful, but low-wage, construction or service jobs. The foreign born accounted for about 17% of the increase in the suburban poor between 2000 and 2009, according to a Brookings report.

Also, as wages eroded over the past decade, some people living on the edge found themselves pushed into poverty. For 2010, the poverty line stood at $22,314 a year for a family of four.

"If they are working minimum-wage jobs and see their wages decline or stagnate, they may now see themselves below the poverty line," Kneebone said.

Faces of poverty

And, of course, there is a whole new set of impoverished suburbanites: the formerly middle class who lost their jobs. These folks may have been living the American dream -- with the house, car and white-picket fence -- but then saw it disappear in the Great Recession.

The Community Action Partnership of Suburban Hennepin has seen a crush of middle-class residents walk through its doors after losing their jobs, said Marcy Harris, planning and development director at the agency, which is outside Minneapolis.

"We saw people who never thought they would use a food bank. They used to contribute to them," Harris said. "And now they are here."

Straining the safety net

Once they fall into poverty, suburbanites often have a harder time accessing services that can aid them because many of these areas aren't equipped to handle the growing numbers, especially amid government budget cuts.

"It can be difficult to find help in many suburban communities," said Scott Allard, associate professor at the University of Chicago who has studied the issue. "Providers are overwhelmed with demand or there are not that many providers to begin with."

Nearly three-quarters of suburban non-profit agencies said they are seeing more clients who had never accessed aid, according to a report Allard published last year. A growing number of requests were for help with food or housing.

Many agencies told Allard they had to put newcomers on waiting lists or refer them to other organizations. But these groups are often far apart and difficult to access, especially for those without cars.

Also, many suburban poor don't know where to turn when they are in dire straits. Or they fear the stigma of having to ask for government assistance, not wanting to let their neighbors know they're in trouble.

"By and large, if you drive through the suburbs, it looks like the American dream is still healthy and real," said Donna Cooper, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy group. "But behind closed doors, there are increasing numbers of people who don't have jobs, their retirement nest eggs are gone and they can't meet their mortgage payments."

Since poverty in the suburbs still remains largely hidden, it can be hard for charitable organizations located there to raise money.

Kneebone recently visited an affluent suburb of Denver, where the poverty rate has doubled in the last decade. The social service agencies there told her they were having a tough time getting area residents to understand the extent of the problem.

"People still donate to organizations in the city," she said. "They don't realize that right in their own neighborhoods, there is need." To top of page

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