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Soaring Suburban Poverty Catches Communities Unprepared

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EDGEWATER, Colo. -- Before the unraveling, Selena Blanco and her family felt secure in their hold on middle class life in this bedroom community just west of Denver. She and her husband both held professional jobs in industries that seemed sheltered from trouble, his in technology, hers in health care. Together they brought home $100,000 a year, enough to allay concerns about paying the bills, let alone having to ask for help.

But over the last two years, both have lost their jobs. Her unemployment check ran out in the spring, leaving them to subsist on his jobless benefits alone, about $1,500 a month.

The Blanco's shattered fortunes have supplied them an unwanted new status, one they share with millions of suburban households in a nation previously accustomed to thinking of suburbia in upwardly mobile terms: They are poor.

They are officially so according to the federal government's definition, which sets the poverty line for a family of five at an annual income of $26,023 or less. It is viscerally true when one sees how Blanco, 28, now spends her day. She takes her four-year-old son to a county-operated Headstart program, free preschool for the poor. She forages for clothes at thrift stores. She scrounges for coupons to keep her family fed.

"We were doing well," Blanco says, dabbing at reddening eyes with a tissue, trying to make sense of events that contradict her understanding of what is supposed to happen to people who work, save and provide for their children. "My husband and I would go out to eat without even thinking about it. We bought shoes. When I needed a bra, I went to Victoria's Secret. Now we're like, 'Which Goodwill is having a sale?'"

They have applied for food stamps and the cash assistance program familiarly known as welfare, crossing a previously unimaginable threshold: For the first time in her life, Blanco -- a self-possessed, confident, intelligent woman who still carries herself like someone who used to work in an office -- has entered the ranks of those in need of public assistance.

"It's a horrible feeling," she says, tears staining her face. "There's pride. I don't show my kids that we're hurting, but it hurts me. It makes me feel like I'm failing as a parent. It's embarrassing."

Despite the typically urban associations evoked by talk of poverty in America, Blanco is the face of an emerging segment of the nation's poor now growing faster than any other. Though cities still have nearly double the rate of poverty as suburban areas, the number of people living in poverty in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas increased by 53 percent between 2000 and 2010, as compared to an increase of 23 percent among city-dwellers, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of recently released census data. In 16 metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Dallas and Milwaukee, the suburban poor has more than doubled over the last decade.

The swift growth of suburban poverty is reshaping the sociological landscape, while leaving millions of struggling households without the support that might ameliorate their plight: Compared to cities, suburban communities lack facilities and programs to help the poor, owing to a lag in awareness that large numbers of indigent people are in their midst. Some communities are wary of providing services out of fear they will make themselves magnets for the poor.

In the suburbs, getting to county offices to apply for aid or to food banks generally requires a car or reliance on a typically minimal public transportation network. The same transportation constraints limit working opportunities, with many jobs potentially beyond reach and would-be employers reluctant to hire people who lack their own vehicles.

These basic difficulties are now exacerbated as states and local governments cut services and lay off staff in the face of budget shortfalls. Growing numbers of the new suburban poor face the risk of slipping through the cracks, sinking into a state of dependence on public assistance just as aid is diminishing.

"You're seeing communities that have seen really rapid increases in their poor populations, and they don't have the infrastructure to deal with it," says Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "The safety net is already stretched really thin, and it's patchier in the suburbs. These providers are dealing with incredible increases in demand at the same time they are seeing their funding cut."

POVERTY EXPANDS

The growth of the suburban poor was underway before the Great Recession, a reflection of how increasing numbers of Americans from across the socioeconomic spectrum have been gravitating to suburban communities: first, in search of better schools and remove from urban life; more recently, because jobs have been shifting there, attracting the affluent and the working poor alike.

By 2000, some 49 percent of the American poor already lived in suburban communities, according to work by Alan Berube and William Frey at the Brookings Institution.

But the recession substantially accelerated this trend in some suburban communities by assailing the incomes of previously middle class households, significantly elevating rates of joblessness, delinquency and foreclosure.

In the Chicago and Detroit metropolitan areas, their suburbs last year claimed the distinction of holding more poor residents than the cities, according to Berube and Kneebone's analysis of census data. In both cities, the percentage of suburbanites living in poverty now exceeds 13 percent.

In the Las Vegas area, where a housing boom gave way to a bust, eliminating thousands of jobs in real estate and construction, nearly 15 percent of suburban residents were poor last year, up from about 10 percent in 2007 when the recession began. In southern California, 17 percent of suburban residents in Riverside, San Bernadino and Ontario were impoverished, a jump from about 12 percent in 2007.

Suburban-based social service agencies have been swamped. A survey of non-profit social service providers in suburban communities in the Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, conducted in 2009 and 2010 by researchers at Brookings, found that roughly nine in ten were seeing increased numbers of people seeking help compared to the previous year. Many had suffered cuts in financial support, prompting them to lay off staff and place needy people on wait-lists.

"In many communities, there just aren't the organizations needed to provide job training, counseling or emergency assistance," said Scott Allard, a political scientist at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration and the lead author of the survey. "Poverty is a recent phenomenon."

One key piece of data from the survey underscores the corrosive effects of suburban poverty on the American identity: Nearly three-fourths of the suburban non-profits were seeing significant numbers of people turning up who had never previously sought help.

"Growing up here, things were good," says Blanco. "Now, you talk to people at the PTA, in the school cafeteria, and people are struggling. At the grocery store, people are going in only for what they need and not for what they want. You see people driving Lexuses and BMWs, and now they are in line at the food bank. Everyone is hurting. Everyone is looking for a job. We're middle class in the suburbs, and now we're hurting."

JUST BEYOND DENVER

Jefferson County, where the Blanco family lives, is precisely the sort of place where the newness of poverty has found the community inadequately prepared, with too few programs, to address the problems.

Traditionally middle class, Jeffco -- as it is widely known -- runs from older suburbs on the fringes of Denver, within sight of the city skyline and the flatlands stretching eastward, and out to more rural communities that rub up against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the west.

For decades, Jeffco has attracted people looking to settle outside the city limits. But beneath the surface of a community that is home to subdivisions with names like Hidden Lake and Country Meadows, Jeffco has been subject to the national trend. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of poor people living in the county grew from fewer than 27,000 to nearly 47,000, according to census data. Almost nine percent of the county is now officially poor.

"It's just a sign of the times," says Lynnae Flora, the county's director of community assistance. "People used to be living paycheck to paycheck. Well, they're not anymore, because there isn't any paycheck."

Jeffco has known acute tragedy: This is where the Columbine massacre played out. Now a more gradual disaster is unfolding, gnawing at the fabric of life.

In 2002, about 17 percent of students at the Jefferson County School District, the largest in the state, came from impoverished households and qualified for free and reduced lunches. Nine years later, that percentage has swelled to 30 percent.

Poor children tend to come from less stable homes, necessitating more frequent moves that interrupt the continuity of their education, consequently requiring extra attention to keep pace with wealthier peers. Yet these growing numbers of poor children are now getting less attention by dint of continuing budget troubles.

Over the last three years, the school district's general fund, which pays for teacher salaries, text books and basic operations, has fallen from about $650 million a year to $586 million, according to the superintendent’s office. The loss of funding has prompted the district to lay off nearly 300 teachers.

The district aims for a student-to-teacher ratio of 20 to 1 for grades one through three, but the average now is about 25 to 1, with some classes holding as many as 28.

"The needs of the children are going up, and the funding is going down," says school superintendent Cynthia M. Stevenson. "When I step back and look at the big picture and know that it isn't going to get any easier, then I worry. We do everything we can for our kids, but there's simply no way to continue doing it."

Two years ago, the county's Department of Human Services was fielding fewer than 900 applications per month from households seeking food assistance. This year, more than 1,900 applications a month have been pouring in. Yet, during the last two years, the county agency has reduced staff handling applications for food stamps from about 120 to 105.

Flora says the cuts have been achieved through attrition, enabled by efficiencies in how the county processes applications. But she still wishes she had more people, particularly as the time to process an application for emergency food aid lengthens.

She dispatches two outreach staff to non-profit social service agencies scattered through the county to help people fill out applications for food stamps. But they can only visit sites once or twice a week. As a result, many people needing help must make a trip to the county headquarters, a complex of offices perched at the top of a hill just above the town of Golden. With a commanding view over the parched terrain, the headquarters looks like a fortress. For many people seeking to reach it, it might as well be.

On a recent morning, Jamie Leavitt enters the lobby of the county's division of community services, takes a number, and waits for half an hour among some three dozen people. When her number comes up, she heads to one of four open windows.

Leavitt, 32, is a mother of three young children. She is here because she has been receiving food stamps in the wake of a divorce -- her ex-husband was the sole breadwinner -- and the division has sent her notice requiring that she recertify her eligibility. She has tried to call her caseworker numerous times, she reports, but has only gotten voicemail and an announcement that his mailbox is full. The clerk explains that the call center has been closed, though it is expected to reopen, because it has lost staff.

So Leavitt has come to the county offices. Without a driver's license, getting here from her home in Littleton took nearly two hours via two buses.

JeffCo's government appears eager to tackle contemporary problems in all their complexity. The county's child support division, which previously took an enforcement tack against fathers who fail to pay, has earned plaudits -- and lower rates of non-payment -- for a multipronged approach that helps jobless men train for and find employment. County officials exude sensitivity to the challenges and enjoy productive relationships with a network of local non-profits.

But earnest efforts to tackle serious problems are running headlong into the limits of arithmetic in an era of shrinking budgets.

At the county's workforce office, where jobless people sit quietly in front of computers, scrolling through listings, staff has been cut from 60 to 34 over the past two years. This, while the county's unemployment rate has ticked up from 8.1 percent to 8.6 percent.

"We are at our absolute minimum of staff to meet the needs," says Flora, the director of community assistance. "We simply need more manpower."

"I NEVER EXPECTED ANYTHING LIKE THIS"

On a recent morning, two dozen people line up outside the Action Center, a non-profit social service agency in Lakewood, just before its 11 o'clock opening time: men and women, young and old, many watching after small children.

Much of the extra need for aid falls on the shoulders of non-profit social service groups such as this one. The center operates a 22-bed homeless shelter, a food pantry and myriad assistance programs, from cash grants to pay for utilities and rent, to transportation money that enables people to get to work.

But much like the county, the Action Center is grappling with a spike in demand just as donations have tapered off. A federal grant that last year delivered $133,000 in utility assistance to about 100 families was cut in the spring. A similar program financed by the county has recently been cut in half.

"The front door is busier than ever, but the resources coming in the back door, there's fewer of them," says the center's executive director, Mag Strittmatter.

In a twist of fortune, some of the same people who used to show up at the back door to donate food and clothing are now coming in the front door to ask for some of those goods for themselves.

"We're hearing this over and over again," Strittmatter says. "They used to donate, and they don't know how to do this, and they never thought this would happen to them."

Tammy Pino certainly did not see this coming. The mother of four grown children, she worked for six years as a customer service manager for a trucking company, earning $11 an hour plus health and retirement benefits, enough to rent a modest duplex in North Denver.

"I was doing fine," she says. "I had money to put away."

But when the monthly rent climbed from $650 to $800, she moved to a cheaper place in Jeffco. Early this year, the trucking company went out of business. For two months, she looked for a similar job but came up empty, so she took a cashier's position at King's Grocery, where she earns $9.14 an hour.

The grocery recently cut her hours from 37 a week to 24, leaving her unable to pay her rent. So she moved in with her sister, who is battling uterine cancer. Her two nephews, 11 and 17, occupy a bedroom, while Pino, 46, sleeps on a couch.

Now, she is here, at the Action Center, wearing a pink T-shirt and matching pink flip-flops, sitting opposite a crisis counselor, Anita Daley, and asking for help.

"I've never been like this anytime in my life," she says, breaking down despite stern attempts to maintain composure. "I never expected anything like this to happen."

Her mother was a teacher, she says. He father was a janitor. They always worked. Pino could count on an allowance. At 16, her parents gave her a car. She had her own television, her own stereo system.

"Now, it's like I'm 16 again," she says. "It's hard to ask anybody for help."

She is eager for another job, a full-time position that would enable her to finance her own place, but her search feels increasingly futile.

"My niece graduated from college and even she can't find a job," Pino says. "She's working at McDonald's."

The counselor tells her about an upcoming job fair. She goes to a supply closet and fills a grocery bag with donated items -- travel-size shampoo bottles from motels, a roll of toilet paper, toothpaste. What else does Pino need?

"I need to go to the dentist," she says, complaining of persistent pain. "I've been trying to hold on."

She gets no insurance at work, she says, adding that this did not stop her employer from recently demanding a doctor's note to excuse two days of absence when she had the flu.

"I said, 'Unless you're going to pay for me to go see a doctor, I'm not going to pay just to find out that I have the flu,'" she recalls, quivering with anger.

The counselor tells her about a free walk-in medical clinic and hands her the paperwork for food stamps. She fills out a slip of paper entitling Pino to take home a box of donated food.

She offers some pots and pans, which Pino accepts with a frown. Her own kitchen goods are in a rented storage locker, along with most of the objects she has accumulated in her lifetime -- clothing, furniture, photos of her children.

"It's just depressing for me to go out there and open up those boxes," she says, referring to her belongings.

She goes back out to the lobby and waits for her name to be called for the food. When the box comes, it holds packs of instant ramen noodles and cans of soup, green beans and peaches. Most of these items have been donated by local households and businesses. A plastic tray of dinner rolls bears a sticker telling Pino who supplied it: King's Grocery.

Her employer does not pay her enough to feed herself the way she has for decades -- by working -- so her sustenance must now be seasoned with charity. And the charity comes from the same place where she rings up groceries destined for other people's kitchens -- an activity that fails to equip her adequately to stock her own.

"There's people who need help more than I do," Pino says, her lips trembling. "I thank God that I have family, and I don't have to go to a shelter. But I'm just trying to get back on my feet and it's so hard."

HOMELESSNESS TOUCHES SCHOOLS

At the headquarters of the Jefferson County School District in Golden, the marble lobby and two-story atrium attest to the level of comfort that has traditionally framed life here. Upstairs, three increasingly busy staff members in cubicles underscore how times have changed.

The three staff members serve as the school system's homeless liaisons. They verify reports that a student is homeless, which can be defined as living in a motel, at a shelter or bunking with friends or relatives on a temporary basis. They offer what aid they can muster.

A decade ago, the district verified that 59 students were homeless. In the last academic year, the number came in at 2,800. This year, only two months into a new academic term, the district has already found nearly 2,000 homeless students.

"We have homelessness everywhere," says homeless liaison Sheree Conyers. "We literally get e-mails and phone calls all day long. Younger people are moving back in with their parents, doubling up. Parents are taking in their kids and their kids' kids because there is nowhere else for them to go."

At Parr Elementary School, a tidy facility in a traditionally middle class neighborhood in the north of the county, where leafy streets are lined with brick homes on well-tended lawns, 28 percent of the student body was homeless at some point during the year.

On a recent afternoon, homeless liaison Jessica Hansen is preparing to visit a family that has just been evicted from their rented home and has moved into a motel just off Interstate 70. They have two children: a girl in the seventh grade, and a boy in the eighth.

Hansen is bringing toiletries, books and microwaveable food. She prepares bus passes for the two children, because the motel that has become their temporary shelter is far beyond walking distance from their school. Getting there now entails a nearly hour-long ride on two buses.

She has in hand a list of available shelters, reflecting the reality that this will likely be the next stop for this family. They are moving into a motel that runs $34 per night, telling themselves they will save up and move back into their rental eventually. But the father works at McDonald's. The mother draws a small disability check. They will probably exhaust their resources in a matter of weeks, Hansen says, and then be forced to start dialing the shelters on the list in pursuit of available space.

Among the 52 listings for shelter beds and transitional housing, only eight are in Jeffco, and only one is open to all types of people, with the others restricted to victims of domestic violence, youths or families. The vast majority are within the Denver city limit, a move that would make the children's bus commute even longer.

The Family Tree, a non-profit social service group, operates a shelter in JeffCo for homeless and runaway youths, but not for families. Still, the options are so limited and the needs so great that, in some families, kids are leaving their parents behind.

"We're getting kids coming into the shelter where the entire family is homeless," says Scott Shields, the group's chief executive officer. "They are so desperate that they are willing to split the family up."

For years, Shields and colleagues at other social service agencies have talked about opening a new youth shelter in Jeffco but have not pursued plans in the face of opposition from the local zoning board.

The school district derives most of its funding for homeless programs via federal grants delivered to the state. But this year, even as the need has exploded, the budget was cut from $40,000 to $36,000.

Conyers, the coordinator, has managed to expand services by aggressively seeking donations. She recently secured a $10,000 check from a local church, using the money to stock a bank account for special emergencies. She tapped that money for a new mattress for a child who was staying with another family and sleeping on the floor. She used those funds to pay for a storage unit for a family in transitional housing, so they would not lose their belongings.

She procures clearance items from local retailers -- blankets, backpacks, toiletry items and food -- storing her cache in a temporary classroom at an elementary school, alongside music stands arrayed for orchestra practice.

All of this feels tenuous, she laments.

"We're really only as strong as our collaborators," Conyers says. "We'll continue to hang on by a thread."

EVERYONE IS HURTING

For decades, Selena Blanco and her family were doing far better than hanging on. They were representative of the burgeoning opportunities and rising living standards that characterized this swiftly growing metropolitan area.

Growing up, her mother worked as an administrator for a Denver construction company. Her father worked in the technology department at AT&T. He drove a prized Corvette.

When Blanco was five, her parents moved the family out of Denver to Edgewater, an established suburb just over the city line, in search of better schools. The unassuming A-frame house had an ample yard. Blanco walked to school, went to neighborhood Halloween parties, and studied at a local library. Her family took vacations to Disneyland.

When Blanco got married and started her own family, she felt confident that the future would follow this familiar trajectory. But two years ago she was laid off from her job as an administrator at a health care provider.

She and her husband could no longer afford the rent on their two-bedroom townhouse, so her father offered them, rent-free, the house in which she had grown up. He and Blanco's mother had split years earlier, he was living elsewhere, and the house was vacant.

In January, her husband lost his job in customer service at Dish Network when the satellite television provider shuttered a local call center and shifted operations to Mexico. She drove to the county seat in Golden to apply for public assistance. She felt a deep sense of shame, combined with a deeper feeling of resignation: She had a family to feed.

Her case officer explained that she did not qualify for help. Her husband's income was imputed to her, and that income bumped them over the limit for cash assistance and food stamps. The bureaucracy seemed to be working against families.

"If you're a single parent, you can get so much help," she says. "But if you're a family, they don't help you. If I divorced my husband, I would qualify for everything immediately."

Her husband has searched aggressively for work, looking for jobs that seem incommensurate with his experience, which includes a college degree. "He has applied to Walmart and Target, the simplest places to get a job," she says. "And they don't even call him back."

Without money for childcare, she can no longer work, she says, further limiting their income.

She did qualify for Headstart, and she values the experiences her youngest child is having there, but that is only three hours a day, four days a week -- not a window that any employer can use.

From the curb, her home looks like many on her block. A trampoline sits out back. An American flag flaps in the breeze above their front stoop.

But when Blanco contemplates her life, her family's future feels deeply unsettled. They are behind on their cable bills and on their Internet service. They have grown used to picking up the phone to hear menacing words from bill collectors.

Blanco and her husband describe themselves as Christians. "We stay positive," she says. "We have faith."

Yet the breakdown in their lives is testing that faith.

"I put on such a good face," she says. "People have no idea how we're hurting. In all actual reality, there's times when I'm like, 'How are we going to get through this?'"

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