Cul-de-sacs and soup kitchens: the new suburban poor

For 50 years, suburbs like this one – with its tree-lined town square and sprawl of cineplexes and cul-de-sacs – have been the finish line for the American dream. Now, they're becoming incubators for a new poverty.

It's evident down Bonifacio Street, past picket fences and bushes of rose and bougainvillaea, at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, where the number of free meals served up daily has nearly doubled in the past two years. In Livermore, workers at the Open Heart Kitchen say they see greater numbers of working families than ever before. Across the San Francisco Bay in Marin County, the Canal Community Alliance turns away more people seeking food, shelter, and assistance each year.

Here and nationwide, the suburb is changing: Long a symbol of middle-class stability and wealth, it's faced with a level of hunger and lack not seen since its post-World War II beginnings. The change is gradual, and suburbs have not replaced inner cities as the centers of severest need. But mounting evidence suggests that poverty is spreading beyond the urban core.

Part of it is the recent downturn, but experts say it goes deeper. For one, the new service-based economy has enticed lower-income workers to the more expensive suburbs as staff in burgeoning strip malls and steakhouses. Moreover, the cost of living is rising so dramatically – particularly in the West and Northeast – that some residents are forced to seek free meals just to pay electric bills.

"Cities' stranglehold on poverty is going to be released," says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. "People of all income levels are moving to the suburbs, and that is resulting in a redistribution of poverty."

An influx of low-wage workers

In its strictest sense, the national increase is incremental. The number of those living below the federal poverty line in suburban areas ticked up only 0.3 percentage points during the past decade, to 8.3 percent.

Yet the increase came as central cities generally saw a decline in poverty, and different regions tell different stories. In the Northeast, for instance, poverty rates increased in 18 of 21 major suburbs.

In these places, "there is a growing diversity of households, greater ethnic diversity, greater diversity of the workforce," says Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "To the extent that the low-wage economy moves to the suburbs, the low-wage workers will move there as well."

But many say federal poverty figures don't fully explain this migration. Gary Mann looks at the people coming through the door of Loaves and Fishes here, and he doesn't see abject poverty. This is not another San Francisco, with hundreds of hungry, homeless waifs searching for meals.

One meal a day at the soup kitchen

This is the Bay Area at its most suburban. Here, amid hills that hunch their backs toward the September sun, developments race to the horizon and broad boulevards sweep by gleaming, mirrored office parks.

Housing costs are rising faster here than in any other Bay Area county. As of April, the median price of a home was $330,000.

The federal poverty threshold for a family of four – a yearly salary of $16,895 – is almost irrelevant: Many of the poorest workers make far more than that."There are a lot of working families," says Mr. Mann of Loaves and Fishes in Concord. "To support their income, they have to come here and eat one meal a day."

Barbara Thomas has never seen so many. Since establishing her Open Heart Kitchen in Livermore in 1997, she's given out more meals each year. But, as with many operations around the Bay Area, the recession – and the dotcom collapse, especially – has hit hard. Forget the poverty line, she says: Middle-class residents have found themselves ladling broth from communal pots.

The growing middle-class need

"We've got scientists from the local [national] laboratory, we've got dotcommers who went bust," says Ms. Thomas. "We've got lots of people who have never been in a soup kitchen before." Increasingly, that's true nationwide, as suburbs often considered affluent – from Evanston, Ill., to East Hartford, Conn. – saw indicators of poverty and need jump during the 1990s.

Indeed, during the next decade, child poverty – a key indicator of overall poverty – will grow faster in the suburbs than in any other area of America, according to one projection by the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Already, many food banks are seeing evidence of the trend. America's Second Harvest, which helps supply soup kitchens nationwide, estimates that one-third of the 23 million people it serves live in suburbs.

Says Doug O'Brien, a hunger and poverty researcher: "The tendency to see hunger as an urban problem is not true anymore."

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