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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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In a sense, moving poverty to the suburbs has been a long-term goal of federal housing policy, which aims at reducing the concentration of the poor in inner cities. Public housing agencies that offer rent subsidies to poor and low-income families have torn down housing projects in cities like Chicago and have encouraged poor families to move to wealthier suburbs with good schools and job opportunities.

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These efforts have had only limited success. Poor families moving from city to suburb or shifting between suburbs are far likelier to settle in poor areas than in wealthier enclaves. As a result, suburban poverty is beginning to look a lot like urban poverty, with pockets of increasingly concentrated poor. Poor suburbs are getting poorer.

The suburban agencies that stock food pantries, run mental-health programs, place people in low-cost housing, and provide other assistance are struggling to keep up with the demand. Often, researchers say, suburbs are ill-equipped to cope with rising poverty because they lack the social services networks and philanthropic organizations that tend to concentrate in cities.

"The suburbs lack the infrastructure of poverty," says Candace King, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform in Chicago's wealthy western suburbs. "We're developing them as quickly as we can, but we don't have the food pantries and community health centers and shelters that are available in the cities."

Experts blame the problem in part on policy decisions made decades ago, when poverty was mainly an urban concern.

"Human-services funding and federal, state, and private philanthropy go disproportionately to the city, less to the suburbs," Ms. King says. "Now, when our need is climbing, climbing, climbing, state money is getting cut, federal money is getting sequestered. Our need is just through the ceiling."

Yvonne Orr, head of the South-Southwest Suburban regional office of the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, says funding requests to her agency rose from $3.5 million to $6.5 million this year, even as the United Way's own funding shrank from $2.6 million to $1.1 million. "Our social service agencies are overburdened," she says.

One such agency is the Thornton Township Food Assistance Center, which serves 17 municipalities in the mostly poor south Chicago suburbs. It hands out groceries to more than 5,000 people each month, and the number keeps growing, says Antoine Collins, the center's manager. "People are forgoing food and medicine just so they can pay their bills," he says. "They're looking for help because they're stretched thin."

Meanwhile, rising poverty in suburbs like Harvey worries many middle-class residents. While the poor praise the suburbs because they are quieter and safer than the city, other residents are troubled by the accumulating effects of poverty. Some are leaving for other suburbs farther from the city.

"It's getting bad out here," says Marqueze Thomas, a recent high school graduate who had stopped to pick up a friend in Calumet City, south of Chicago, where residents complain of increased gang activity.

Overall, suburban crime has declined in recent years, mirroring a drop in urban crime. And yet Keith Price, an alderman in Harvey, where the poverty rate soared from 21.7 percent to 33.2 percent between 1999 and 2011, says crime is a much bigger problem in his community than it was when his family moved there from Chicago in the 1980s.

"Of course the crime rate has gone up, due to the fact of unemployment, due to the fact of drugs, due to the fact of poverty," he says. "Crime is always an issue when you have people who can't properly feed their families."

Marcus Thomas, one of Harvey's newer residents, may think of the town as a safer place to live, but in some ways, his life is little changed. He said he hadn't worked in at least five years, although he hoped to land a job on a construction project.

How does he make a living? As he talked, he spotted an acquaintance a short distance down the street. Reaching deep into his jeans, he drew out a small packet, pressed it into the man's hand, and returned clutching a small wad of bills.

"I hustle," he says.

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