Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Deborah Smith threw up when her husband called her with the news.
Laid off. Again. Both of us. Savings gone. Her thoughts spun like the water in the toilet she crouched over, shaking. Down, down, down and away.
Smith, 39, had done everything "right." She graduated from college. Married a college graduate. Got a job as an accountant. Bought a house in the suburbs outside of Chicago. Then, when the time was right, welcomed two little boys into the world. "I was living the American dream," she said. How did she end up here? Unemployed, upside down on her mortgage, dodging bill collectors and frequenting the local food bank?
America's suburbs, a long-time iconic symbol of middle-class prosperity, are now home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country. Over the past decade, suburban poverty rose 53 percent, while urban poverty increased by 26 percent, according to research from the Brookings Institute. By 2010, the suburbs, with their sprawling, clipped lawns and quiet cul-de-sacs, were home to the majority of the nation's poor. Once a phenomenon of the inner-city ghetto, pockets of extreme poverty — neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line — are becoming increasingly common in suburbs, too.
The trend presents a challenge for suburban municipalities, where public transportation is less developed and leaders are more accustomed to fixing roads, putting out fires and settling property disputes than serving the poor. While charitable organizations have woven a tight safety net of social support for the urban poor, in suburbs, service providers are few and far between. Those that do exist are often stretched thin, juggling the needs of multiple counties.
The new face of poverty
Smith's troubles started in 2007, when her husband was laid off from his job as a product manager for a printing house — a position he'd held for 10 years. The family, accustomed to a dual income, had to start pinching pennies, but with the money Smith was bringing in as an accountant for a small road-side assistance company, they did OK. Then, in 2009, she lost her job, too. Within a few months, he was back at work, only to get laid off a year later.
Smith was so anxious her hair started falling out. She spread the bills out on the table, sat back in her chair and stared at them for hours. There was no way she could pay them all.
"It was ugly," she said. "It was very, very ugly."
Suburban poverty wasn't born of the recession. Even in 2000, the numbers were creeping up. But the downturn, which hit the middle class hardest, was like pouring gasoline on steadily smoldering coals. Two-thirds of the new suburban poor joined the ranks between 2007 and 2010. The building boom of the early 2000s drew aspiring middle-class families to the suburbs in droves, said Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah. Fancy financing — zero down, adjustable mortgage rates — lured homeowners into houses they couldn't afford long term. When the economy went south in 2007, these new suburbanites were already struggling to juggle rising mortgage rates with other financial obligations.
"The higher working ones kept shoveling money into the higher mortgage rates, but many just basically gave up," Nelson said. "They lost all their savings, so when the economy popped, they had no reserves whatsoever."
Suburban communities also took the brunt of the job losses during the downturn, Nelson said. His research at the U of U shows higher density developments where people can walk or take a train to work are more likely to retain jobs during troubling times.
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