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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Joey Gamilla, who is unemployed, sits at his computer in his apartment in Naperville, Ill. He was a middle-income homeowner when he was laid off in 2008.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Blanca Sanchez and her son shop at the free food pantry in Wheaton, Ill.

Marcus Thomas, a lanky, unemployed construction worker, says he moved out of Roseland, a poor neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, because it had become too dangerous.

"I couldn't walk down the street without someone pulling out a gun on me," he says.

He didn't go far. Mr. Thomas came to this suburb just a few miles away, where on a recent afternoon he pushed one of his three children along the sidewalk in a stroller.

"It's better than the city," he says. "There's not too much violence."

Suburbs are increasingly becoming the address of America's poor. Suburban poverty across the country grew 53 percent between 2000 and 2010, more than twice the rate of urban poverty, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution. For the first time, more poor people live in the suburbs than in cities.

"I think suburban poverty is here to stay," says Alan Berube, one of the authors. "It's not going to revert back to the cities."

Much of the rise in suburban poverty is due to the impoverishment of working families already living there. The decline in manufacturing, the Great Recession, and widespread foreclosures have left many longtime suburban families reeling.

At the same time, the suburbs have become a destination for poor and low-income people arriving from somewhere else. Some, like Thomas, have abandoned poor urban neighborhoods in hopes of living somewhere better – with safer streets, better schools, and housing that's cheaper than in gentrifying urban areas. And new immigrants, many of them poor, are bypassing the urban neighborhoods where they once settled and heading straight to the suburbs.

By official measures, poverty has risen dramatically in the United States. Between 2000 and 2011, the nation's poor increased from 33.9 million to 46.2 million. As of 2010, 55 percent of the poor in major metropolitan areas were living in the suburbs. Among the "near poor" – those with incomes as much as twice the poverty level – 63 percent were living in the suburbs. (The poverty threshold for a family of four is currently $23,550.)

This rise in suburban poverty reflects long-term demographic shifts – America is more than ever a suburban nation – and economic changes that have widened the gap between rich and poor and have made it more difficult for families to secure a place in the middle class. The rise is also happening as city centers across the country are booming, attracting the young, wealthy, and well educated and in some cases displacing poorer residents.

"What we're seeing is that poverty is being pushed out of the city core," says John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a nonprofit that assists renters in the Chicago area. "The poor are much more in the periphery now, kind of like in a European city."

In the Seattle area, for example, rising rents in the city have pushed low-income blacks into the southern suburbs, where they have joined waves of immigrants, local observers say. In Tukwila, Wash., poverty rose from 13 percent to 24 percent between 2000 and 2010 as the community attracted Bosnians, Somalis, Latinos, and blacks from urban neighborhoods. In Lakewood, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, poverty increased from 9 percent to 16 percent during the same period, in part because of families moving out of Cleveland.

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.

"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."

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.

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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