Latest Trend in Suburban Malls: Child Poverty

In the gleaming grocery stores of suburbia, shoppers with Gucci purses are lining up behind families with food stamps. Around the corner from sprawling malls and modern public schools, many parents are quietly struggling to provide food and clothes for their children.

Even in Overland Park, Kan., an affluent suburb of Kansas City, social workers are seeing a sharp rise in the the number of needy poor families.

"We've seen a growing number of working poor in this community," says Karen Wulfkuhle, head of United Community Services of Johnson County. "There is a labor deficit in this area, and there are jobs that are going unfilled. But many of them are low-paying without any benefits."

It may be hidden behind the clean streets and manicured lawns of suburban America, but poverty among young children in the suburbs is going up as fast as tract housing.

The depth of the problem was revealed in a recent report, which showed that poverty among children under 6 is growing nearly twice as fast in the suburbs as in cities.

"The suburbs are starting to look more and more like the rest of America," says Julian Palmer, spokesman for the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University, which conducted the study.

Although the heaviest concentration of poor children is still in urban areas, the strains of poverty are bursting the city limits and invading the suburbs.

Between the late 1970s and early '90s, the suburban child-poverty rate increased nearly 60 percent. Meanwhile, urban poverty rose 34 percent, and rural poverty grew 45 percent. Seventeen percent, or 2.1 million, of suburban children under 6 now live in poor families.

While the economy is doing well nationwide, many less-educated parents are finding it impossible to get jobs that pull them above the poverty line.

"This is something that people don't see, but it's real," says Arloc Sherman, a researcher at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington. "It's not just a case of poor children moving out to the suburbs. It's the underlying failure of the economy to generate family-supporting jobs. In the '70s, family breakup was propelling a lot of poverty. Now it's the spread in low-wage jobs and massive government cutbacks."

In fact, the majority of poor young children live in working families. Sixty-two percent of all poor children under 6 lived with at least one parent or relative who worked at least part-time, according to the NCCP report.

"If you play by the rules as a two-parent family where at least one of the parents is working full-time, the child poverty rate has more than doubled in that type of family over the last 20 years," says NCCP director Lawrence Aber.

In Overland Park, some of the growth in suburban poverty has to do with an aging housing stock. "As areas that were originally developed as suburbs 40 years ago start to age, the housing is becoming more affordable," Ms. Wulfkuhle says. "So people who have lower incomes are able to afford those houses."

In New York, the story is similar. "We're seeing an outmigration of all levels of people," says Elie Ward, policy director at Statewide Youth Advocacy Inc. in Albany.

But it's often difficult for these poor families to come forward and ask for help. "Poverty in the suburbs is far more invisible than poverty in the city. It can be extremely isolated," Ms. Ward says.

Many suburbanites live among poor families without even realizing it. "People know families who are under financial pressure," says Mr. Sherman of the Children's Defense Fund. "But they might be surprised to learn that they are really poor."

"Most people don't want to hear about poverty. This is not everybody's favorite breakfast reading," says Christopher Jencks, a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Professor Jencks recently analyzed poverty rates from the Census Bureau and concluded that there has been less overall growth than the statistics imply. Yet he does not question the report on growing suburban poverty.

The political import of the statistics is powerful, Jencks adds. "It suggests that we can't just think of this as a problem that is concentrated in a ghetto area that I don't have to think about because I don't go there. Poor kids are poor kids whether they are in suburbs or in central cities."

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