By Vikki Ortiz Healy and Matthew Walberg
Once considered the definition of the middle-class American dream, the suburbs are now home to a larger, faster-growing poor population than urban areas, according to a new analysis.
During the 2000s, the number of poor living in U.S. suburbs grew by 64 percent -- more than twice the 29 percent growth rate in cities.
Overall, 16.4 million poor people consider suburbia home, compared with 13.4 million in big cities and 7.3 million in rural areas, researchers for the Brookings Institution said in a book published Monday.
The shifting poverty demographic can be seen in Chicago's suburbs, where the number of poor increased by 99 percent in the last decade -- from 363,966 to 724,233, said Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America."
That was a greater increase than recorded in the New York City or Los Angeles regions, according to the book.
The authors and local advocates contend that the new reality will require fresh approaches to policies and practices to avoid a grim future.
"Clearly, the landscape of poverty in America has changed," Kneebone said. "It can't just be about shifting resources from one place to another. We have to think about how to work more effectively across city and suburban lines."
Kneebone and co-author Alan Berube define poor as a family of four living on $22,314 or less. Their book listed several factors driving the nationwide shift.
Among them are the presence of more jobs in the suburbs, especially lower-paying ones. In turn, job losses triggered by the recession in construction, manufacturing and retail industries hit hardest in suburban areas.
An increase in affordable housing in the suburbs throughout the 2000s also had an impact, the book said.
By the end of 2010, roughly half of residents using housing vouchers lived in suburbs. At the same time, three-quarters of foreclosures occurred in suburbia, the authors said.
The number of foreclosed homes puts pressure on the community because it is not uncommon for structures to fall into disrepair as they sit empty for several years, said Kevin Welsh, fire chief and building department director for south suburban Glenwood.
"I've seen good residents lose their property for no other reason than the fact that they fell on hard times because their jobs were eliminated or cut back," Welsh said. "They took care of their homes, kept them nice, but all of a sudden they were unable to pay the bills."
The book's authors said suburban communities around the U.S. have been caught off guard by the poverty and that both public and private agencies have struggled to meet the need.
They commended the way 19 municipalities in Chicago's south suburbs -- including Blue Island, Harvey, Calumet Heights and South Holland -- banded together to apply for joint federal support.
The group, part of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, uses those resources on broader economic development priorities.
"There are promising models that are emerging on how to use limited resources," Kneebone said.
At the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, research associate Jennifer Clary said her organization has tracked the shift locally since 1980 with similar findings.
"It's really clear that lower incomes that combined with the rising cost of pretty much everything in life are really crushing people in the suburbs," Clary said.
Kim Perez, executive director for the People's Resource Center, which offers a food bank and other services for the poor in Wheaton and Westmont, said she hopes the book will shed light on an increase she and volunteers have noticed.
"The new reality is that it's not an 'us' and 'them' situation anymore," Perez said. "It's a community situation, and it's got to be this kind of really collaborative, universal effort to make a difference."
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