Face of US poverty: These days, more poor live in suburbs than in cities
The rise in suburban poverty reflects long-term demographic shifts – America is more than ever a suburban nation – as well as economic changes.
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For the poor, living in the suburbs can pose special challenges – challenges that social services officials say the poor are often unprepared for. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is transportation. Suburbs are built for cars, yet a car is beyond the means of many poor and low-income residents. Instead they catch rides with friends, ride bikes, or use suburban bus lines with limited service. These challenges are more than an inconvenience; they make poverty that much harder to escape.Skip to next paragraph
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"If you don't have a car, it's very hard to get a job or to keep a job," says David Cassel, head of the United Way of DuPage/West Cook in the western Chicago suburbs. "It's also hard to access services."
Victoria Wainwright struggles with these difficulties every day. She lives on modest federal disability payments – about $850 a month – and income from an occasional job as a housekeeper. She can't afford her own place, so she shares an apartment with two other women on a busy street in Wheaton, one of Chicago's western suburbs. She has no car, so she was delighted recently when a friend gave her an old Schwinn. Otherwise, she walks, threading her way through back streets to her local grocery store because many of the main roads lack sidewalks.
To pick up food at local pantries, which she depends on to make it from month to month, she asks friends for rides. She says the local buses often don't run where she needs to go.
"I used to go to the malls," she says. "It's a good opportunity to apply for jobs. But it's hard to get there. It's a lot of different buses. You make a lot of transfers. You spend a lot of time getting there." Her two children live with their father in a neighboring suburb, but she is seldom able to go see them.
The expense of suburban life often comes as a shock to poor and low-income people, says Jane Macdonald, director of client engagement at Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry in Naperville, Ill. "If you're not factoring in the cost of a car, the cost of gas, those kinds of things, I think you can underestimate the kind of job you might need to support your family," she says.
Yet for many people, those jobs are scarce. True, some suburbs abound in low-paying jobs in retail sales and in services like landscaping and restaurants, but these jobs typically pay too little to lift workers very far out of poverty, if at all, social services officials say. Moreover, many low-wage jobs are available through temporary employment agencies that may offer a string of positions without benefits or a guarantee of steady employment.
"The companies do not hire permanent employees anymore," says Joey Gamilla, who waited to pick up groceries at Loaves & Fishes on a recent morning. "It's mostly temps. They don't have to pay benefits." Workers, he complains, "are expendable."
Mr. Gamilla has been looking for steady employment since 2008. Once a project manager at a stainless-steel fabricating company, he is one of the many suburbanites who lost their jobs – and their houses – and are trying to claw their way back to the middle class. He hasn't made it yet. He says he has "no illusion" he'll find a job with the salary he had in 2008. He just wants a job.
So far, none he's found has lasted, including ones for which he was far overqualified. Now, as he and his wife face eviction from their apartment, Gamilla, who is in his mid-50s, is hoping just to pay his rent, keep his car, and preserve his dignity.
"I can't believe myself," he says. "I'm willing to work for $10 an hour."
Even in suburbs that have preserved a modest manufacturing base, the practice of hiring temporary labor makes it difficult for poor and low-income workers to earn a living. The strip malls of Aurora, a western Chicago suburb, are sprinkled with temp agencies. Each day workers trickle in and out, some headed by van or car to regular assignments, others hovering about cheerless waiting rooms or pedaling hopefully from one agency to another.
On a recent morning, Greg Ingram, a former real estate appraiser, said he had worked at three jobs in the previous two weeks and at 15 over the past three years. He was looking for No. 16. His last job – at a warehouse in a neighboring suburb – ended when the worker he caught a ride with quit after concluding that the pay was not worth the expense of getting there.
"Here I am," said Mr. Ingram, standing with his bicycle outside the third agency of the day. "I'm just trying to get something steady. If I just get a job here and there, I'm not going to be able to pay for a room."