Poverty in America is taking on a distinctly different character - a suburban one.
Even as the economy clips along, the ills of the inner city are quietly shifting to the nation's suburbs - particularly older ones. Among the reasons: an exodus of residents to wealthier exurbs, a loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs, and the prevalence of one-parent families.
The result is an emerging dual suburban world, where soccer is played on manicured fields in one neighborhood and teenagers with too much time hang out on the corner in another.
Hidden in the shadows of the leafy streets of Long Island, in the well-tended ranch houses that ring Minneapolis, and the hills around San Francisco, there are now almost as many children who live in poverty as in the most blighted urban areas.
"The face of poverty is changing and so we have to dismiss our stereotypes," says Neil Bennett of the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) in New York.
Poverty changes the face of suburbs
"In fact, only a minority of poor people now live in urban areas."
A study released yesterday by the NCCP finds that after surging rapidly during the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of children in poverty has declined by almost 20 percent since 1993. That still leaves 1 in 5 American children living in poverty - the highest rate in the Western industrialized world.
And where those poor children now live is changing. The fastest rate of decline in poverty was found in the inner cities among minorities - it dropped by almost 20 percent. In rural areas, the rate dropped by 9 percent. And in the suburbs, where the child-poverty rate jumped more than 50 percent between 1975 and 1993, it has declined only 11 percent since 1993.
Those statistics become very real at the food pantry run by the Parish Social Ministry at Our Lady of Loretto in Hempstead, N.Y., on Long Island.
It's where Hazel turned after her third child was born just over a year ago. The baby was still welcomed even though the family barely had enough to eat. Hazel, working as a full-time live-in nanny, had to give up her job. Her husband's minimum-wage restaurant job brings home just over $200 a week after taxes.
With a rent payment of just over $800 dollars a month, the family used what little savings it had and turned to the food pantry.
"They gave us two bags of food a week and that helped tremendously, because we couldn't survive on my husband's income without it," says Hazel, who is again working but still barely able to make ends meet.
Hazel's plight is reflected in other suburbs across the country, particularly older ones.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently released a report cataloging ills of the older suburbs from Garfield Heights outside Cleveland, to Royal Oak near Detroit, to Chicago Heights. They all face stagnating or declining populations as wealthier residents move to newer suburbs and businesses follow.
"The suburbs are becoming as economically segregated as the country as a whole," says Harvard University's Christopher Jencks. "The old central-city/suburbs dichotomy is more and more becoming a rich-suburb/poor-suburb dichotomy."
That's not news to Rosemary Viola, who runs the Parish Social Ministry where Hazel gets her weekly bags of food. But she does worry the country is slow to recognize the change.
"The unidentified poor are not even acknowledged here in the suburbs. They don't exist when you look at how [the towns] allocate funds," she says. And with property values riding on perceptions, many towns are reluctant to focus attention on their pockets of poverty, she suspects.
For years, some social scientists have predicted that the social problems afflicting the inner cities would spread outward. The Cato Institute's Michael Tanner says the two greatest predictors of poverty, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births, are "capping out" in the inner cities. That's helped bring down overall rates of out-of-wedlock births.
"My suspicion is that you're seeing a decline among African Americans and among teenagers, but not seeing that decline among white suburbanites and women in their 20s," Mr. Tanner says.
Economic shifts are also at work, says Janice Gruendel of Connecticut Voices for Children. She says the recession that ended in the early 1990s permanently changed many suburban communities in Connecticut. The state lost 158,000 jobs, mostly good-paying ones in manufacturing, defense, and financial services.
The people who held those jobs lived mostly in suburbs and rural areas. Although the state has replaced about three-fourths of those jobs, many are lower-paying service-sector ones with no benefits.
"That says, rather boldly, that the extraordinary growth of wealth that we've seen since the early '90s has not touched many middle-income people ... in the suburbs," Ms. Gruendel says. "That wealth just isn't trickling down to all of the families in the suburbs."
She also contends that the problem is worse than the federal statistics would indicate. Under the federal guidelines, a family of four is considered poor if their income is less than $16,400. A survey of Connecticut residents found that to meet the basic necessities - housing, food, clothes, and transportation - a family of four would need to earn $45,000 - three times the federal poverty level.