Health & Human Services

Poverty Comes to the Suburbs

Poverty is encroaching on suburban enclaves -- even the most affluent of them. Many are ill-equipped to meet the new social-service needs.
by | May 2010
 

DuPage is the richest county in the Midwest. Sitting just west of Chicago, it is quintessential American suburbia-overwhelmingly white, Republican and well educated.

Despite all that, DuPage faces an issue historically more associated with inner cities than suburban enclaves: rising poverty. Median incomes remain high, but increasingly more families find themselves at or near the poverty line.

The changing face of DuPage became evident about five years ago, says Elizabeth Donovan, director of agencies and programs at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, a nonprofit agency serving 13 counties surrounding Chicago. "Around 2005 was the gotcha moment-there was a real shift." That's when, she says, the rate of poverty growth in DuPage began to surpass poverty growth in Chicago. "You look at DuPage County, and it's like, here's one of the wealthiest places, but it's also one of the fastest-growing poor areas around."

What's happened in DuPage County in recent years isn't unusual. Poverty is on the rise in suburban areas nationwide. Some of it is pure demographics: More people are moving to the suburbs, so more poor people live in the suburbs. But there's more to it than that. The housing crisis and recession have hit suburbs harder than other places, which means foreclosures and unemployment have an outsize impact on suburban communities. By 2008, according to the Brookings Institution, the nation's suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the nation.

That's making it doubly hard to deal with the problem. For one, the simple rise in poverty rates puts a strain on groups that administer services to the suburban poor. But many suburbs don't have the capacity to handle the poor populations they already have, much less an increase in those numbers. And being poor in the suburbs isn't the same as being poor in a city. Suburban poverty brings its own set of unique challenges, and many communities are finding they're ill-equipped to handle those issues. What works in the inner city often doesn't work in the 'burbs.

More than anything, suburbs are struggling against the lingering perception that poverty is a big-city problem. Donovan says she meets people all the time-residents of DuPage and other well-to-do suburban counties-who still regularly donate items to the center-city Chicago food bank. Although Donovan says she has a great working relationship with the city food bank, she still finds it striking that suburban residents don't know that their own communities would benefit from food donations. They often are unaware of the poverty that may exist on their own street. "People have this myth about what life is supposed to be like in the suburbs-the white picket fence, all of that," she says. "They aren't aware that so much happens within a short drive of where they live. They prefer to think poverty happens only in the city."

To understand how poverty became a suburban issue, it helps to look at the overall changes in poverty over the past few decades. Mark Rank, a social welfare professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has written extensively about shifts in U.S. poverty since the 1960s, and finds that Americans today are more likely to face poverty than in the past. According to Rank's data, 24 percent of people who were in their 20s in the 1970s were likely to experience poverty at some point in their lives. That number rose to 31 percent in the 1980s and 37 percent in the 1990s. Today a majority of Americans-51.4 percent, according to the Urban Institute-will experience poverty by the time they're 65.

What's behind the steady uptick? "Jobs are less stable," says Rank. "Pay is less; [unemployment] benefits are less. There's less of a safety net."

But there's more to the story than simply hitting the poverty line. Rank's research shows that 75 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near-poverty-earning 150 percent of the federal poverty income level-in their lifetimes. That means if you're trying to support a family of four today on a $33,000-per-year income, you may not technically be "poor," but you'll likely have a hard time making ends meet, Rank says. "The American dream is becoming harder and harder to achieve."

Naturally as the general population has shifted to the suburbs over the past four decades, poverty numbers also have transitioned. "Yes, there are more people experiencing poverty in suburban areas," Rank says. "But part of that is there are just more people in suburban areas."

In the past decade, however, poverty growth in the suburbs has far outstripped mere population growth. According to a Brookings Institution study released in January, The Suburbanization of Poverty, suburbs of the country's largest metro areas saw their poor population increase 25 percent from 2000 to 2008. That's almost five times faster than in large cities. As a result, by 2008, suburbs of big cities were home to 1.5 million more poor residents than the cities themselves. "The pace of growth is striking," says Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research analyst for the institute's Metropolitan Policy Program and one of the report's authors. "The slope of the line has steepened since 2000."

In addition to the overall suburbanization of the general population, jobs have become much more decentralized over the years. Another Brookings Institution report released in March points to "job sprawl" as a driver of suburban poverty as city residents have followed available jobs ever outward into the suburbs. In the recent recession and the slow recovery, as many of those employment opportunities have dried up, the suburban poor have been disproportionately affected. During the first year of the recession that began in 2007, suburbs added more than twice the number of poor residents as cities did.

This surge in suburban poverty is overwhelming communities that simply don't have the capacity to handle it. Scott Allard, associate professor at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, is an expert in poverty and social welfare policy, and in his research regarding suburban poverty's spread, he's interviewed more than 100 poverty-focused nonprofits in suburbs outside Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The agencies, he says, are straining to meet new demands; roughly half say they're referring more clients to other agencies than in previous years. Half also report that they've expanded their waiting lists in the past year, and 40 percent say they've had to prioritize the clients they're able to serve. Demand overall among these suburban agencies is up about 70 percent since the recession began.

In short, there simply aren't as many nonprofits in the suburbs as there are in large cities. "Even though the poverty rate is higher in the suburbs," Allard says, "it doesn't appear that the safety net is well matched for that reality. Our safety net is predicated on the presumption that poverty is a central-city phenomenon. There just aren't programs in place where they're needed."

The need for programs-and the variety of needs-can be overwhelming and quite different from inner-city challenges. In a tan brick 1970s-era mid-rise in Arlington, Va., for instance, Nury Marquez is trying to help a client find work. Marquez is the executive director of the Hispanic Committee of Virginia, a 43-year-old nonprofit serving poor Hispanic residents in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The group provides a host of services, from employment help and domestic violence counseling to citizenship-prep classes and assistance with foreclosures. Mostly though, the committee exists to help connect clients to available services. That boils down to one thing: bridging the language barrier.

"They don't speak English," says Marquez. "They don't understand how to find the services they need." Of the 12,000 to 15,000 individuals the Hispanic Committee helps each year, more than three-fourths speak little or no English.

That illustrates an inescapable-and formidable-fact of suburban poverty. It's simply different from urban poverty. The language barrier, for instance, isn't nearly as much of an issue in urban neighborhoods, where African-Americans have historically made up most of the poor population. Over the past 20 years, however, immigrants arriving in the United States have been drawn to the suburbs' plentiful jobs and affordable housing. By no means would it be accurate to say that suburban poverty is an "immigrant problem," but the language barrier among some of the suburban poor definitely adds a challenging dimension that's absent from central-city poverty.

Communication in general can be especially difficult for agencies serving the suburban poor-even when those in need speak flawless English. Unlike chronically poor residents in urban neighborhoods, many suburban dwellers are experiencing poverty for the first time. "For many of these families, this is new territory," says Allard. "They just haven't had to access these kinds of safety-net services before." That means they likely don't know exactly what kind of help is available or how to tap into the social welfare system.

It also means they may find it harder to bring themselves to ask for help. "There's a lot of stigma about poverty," says Professor Rank, "especially among people in the suburbs who think they're the only poor person on the block." Even if people are willing to ask their neighbors, Rank adds, it's more difficult to find information than in large cities. "In densely populated urban areas, there's much more of an exchange of information about what services are available. People are less likely to talk to their neighbors in the suburbs. It's harder to spread the word."

By far the greatest challenge of suburban poverty, though, is geography. In a sprawling suburban community, where poor residents might be a dozen miles from a social service agency, it can be almost impossible for them to get the help they need. "It's the geography first and foremost," says George Searcy, executive director of the Hope Through Housing Foundation, an agency based in suburban Los Angeles that helps provide housing for low-income families. In urban centers, he says, "not only do you have a more dense population, you have a more dense concentration of services." In suburban communities, it's just the opposite. "Everything is so geographically dispersed, you could spend hours just trying to get to the places you need for help. And if you don't drive, you're getting on a bus. And it's difficult to even get there on a bus."

Transportation is a major issue for the people Marquez works with in Virginia. "It's a vicious circle," she says. "It costs a lot of money to own and maintain a car, but if you give it up, you limit yourself even further."

In addition to the challenges involved in reaching out to the suburban poor, suburban agencies often are stymied by the myriad different jurisdictions they serve. Donovan says serving a swath of 13 counties means the Northern Illinois Food Bank is working with 13 community foundations, 13 United Ways, 13 departments of health-not to mention all the mayors and city councils within those counties. The spread-out nature of the 'burbs means that even if certain localities are adamant about fighting poverty, it can be nearly impossible to coordinate a regional strategy. "Within the counties, there are local officials who get it, and there's good leadership," Donovan says. "But across the region? No."

Cobbling together cities and counties for a regional approach to combating poverty would be difficult, and it likely would require coordination from states or the federal government. For the most part, though, suburbia's response to the growing poverty problem has been slow and disjointed. As Donovan says, "It's really a quilt with no pattern."

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