Updated: 6/26/2012 10:05 AM ET|
Poverty has a new address: Suburbia
There are now 2.7 million more poor households in the suburbs than in cities, thanks to long-term trends that have accelerated in the current economic downturn.
For years, the food pantry in Crystal Lake, Ill., a bedroom community 50 miles west of Chicago, has catered to the suburban area's poor, homeless and unemployed. But Cate Williams, the head of the pantry, said earlier this year that she has noticed a striking change in the makeup of the needy over the past year or two.
Some families that once pulled down six-figure incomes and drove flashy cars are turning to the pantry for help. A few of them donated food and money to the pantry before their luck soured, according to Williams.
"People will shyly say to me, 'You know, I used to give money and food to you guys. Now I need your help,'" Williams told The Fiscal Times. "Most of the folks we see now are people who never took a handout before. They were comfortable, able to feed themselves, to keep gas in the car and keep a nice roof over their head."
Suburbia always had its share of low-income families and the poor, but the sharp surge in suburban poverty is beginning to grab the attention of demographers, government officials and social service advocates.
The past decade has marked the most significant rise in poverty in modern times. One in six people in the U.S. is poor, according to the latest census data, compared with one in 10 Americans in 2004. This surge in the percentage of the poor is fueling concerns about a growing disparity between the rich and poor -- the 99% versus the 1%, in the parlance of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
But contrary to stereotypes that the worst of poverty is centered in urban areas or isolated rural areas and Appalachia, the suburbs have been hit hardest in recent years, an analysis of census data reveals. "If you take a drive through the suburbs and look at the strip mall vacancies, the 'For Sale' signs, and the growing lines at unemployment offices and social services providers, you'd have to be blind not to see the economic crisis is hitting home in a way these areas have never experienced," said Donna Cooper, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.
In the wake of the Great Recession, poverty rolls are rising at a more rapid pace in the suburbs than in cities or rural communities. From 2000 to 2010, the number of suburban households below the poverty line increased by 53%, compared with a 23% increase in poor households in urban areas, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of census data.
In 2010, there were 2.7 million more suburban households than urban households below the federal poverty level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was the first time on record that America's cities didn't contain the highest absolute number of households living in poverty. There are many reasons for the dramatic turnabout in the geographic profile of poverty.
While many once-depressed urban areas have benefited from revitalization efforts, drawing in more affluent residents, suburban areas now attract lower-income families who move there in search of more-affordable housing and better schools. This shift in low-income families to the suburbs coincided with a move of low-wage, low-skilled jobs to those same suburban areas from the 1970s to the early 2000s, experts say. Meanwhile, the introduction of new commerce and high-cost housing in urban neighborhoods has pushed overall prices upward, providing added incentive for low-income people to head for the suburbs.
"These are families that were living on the edge in the city, but in many cases over the last 20 to 30 years, regained some stability when they found affordable housing in the suburbs," said Cooper. "Now, the economy tanks, they lose their jobs, they're poor, and they're out in the suburbs on the edge once again."
Both urban and suburban America were badly hammered by the financial meltdown and recession, which has led to stubbornly high unemployment, widespread foreclosures and "underwater" homes, high food and gas prices, and sharp cutbacks in government and private social services. But the overall impact has been worse in suburban areas, because many low-skilled jobs disappeared along with the plants and businesses that once provided employment. Other companies shifted their business strategy toward developing a high-skill, high-tech labor force.
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