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Soaring Suburban Poverty Catches Communities Unprepared

First Posted: 10/13/2011 5:12 pm Updated: 09/25/2012 3:12 pm

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."


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."