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The new face of poverty: As recession lingers, poverty migrates to the suburbs

Published: Saturday, Nov. 12 2011 3:53 p.m. MST

Since 2000, five million people living in the suburbs have fallen into poverty, according to the Brookings Institute. The Midwest led the ranks, with poverty increasing in both cities and suburbs. In New York and Worcester, poverty in the cities declined while poverty in the suburbs climbed. Areas as diverse as New Orleans and Provo saw the share of poor people who live in the suburbs cross the 50 percent mark.

In Illinois' Cook County the median household income has dropped more than $8,500 since 1999. The foreclosure rate in Hanover Park Township, where Smith lives, is one of the worst in the county, surpassing even some of Chicago's most distressed inner-city neighborhoods.

Aside from the signs — "Bank Owned," "Price Reduced," "Short sale" — the neighborhood looks much the same as it always has, Smith said. A white rambler with a wrap-around porch, a two story with fresh paint and smart, green shutters, a six-bedroom brick house with shade trees and a two car garage — this is foreclosure in Hanover Park. But behind closed doors, things couldn't be more different. Mixing with neighbors while her two boys participate in Boy Scout activities, she used to chat about vacation plans, sports and the latest toys her kids were begging for.

"Now we exchange information about where the best food banks are located," she said.

Social safety net for the suburbs

At first, Smith lived off savings. Then she and her husband cashed out their 401Ks. When that was gone, she didn't know where to turn for help.

"I didn't have a whole lot of experience asking for help," she said. The first time the cupboards ran bare, she made her husband make the trip to the food bank. "I couldn't do it," she said.

Suburban nonprofits nationwide saw an increase in the number of people, like Smith, who had never had to rely on social services before, said Scott Allard, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who focuses on social welfare policy and poverty. Because suburban poverty is a relatively new phenomenon, there's been a lag effect in the response of government and nonprofit organizations, Allard said. Social service agencies to help with job search, emergency food assistance and housing are few and far between.

"It makes sense in a way because we think of poverty as being an urban problem," he said. "It's not surprising that we've focused a lot of our attention on cities. But now the geography of poverty has shifted and the safety net needs to catch up."

Suburban nonprofits are also stretched thin. Sixty percent of suburban nonprofits operate in multiple municipalities, according to a Brookings Institute study that surveyed providers. Thirty-four percent provide services in multiple counties.

Furthermore, almost half of suburban nonprofits lost key funding during the recession, according to the survey. Despite increasing needs, more than one in five has reduced services and one in seven actively cut case loads.

In the past two years, the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which serves the suburbs surrounding Chicago, has seen a 35 to 50 percent growth in visits, said Pete Schaefer, president and CEO. At the same time, the organization stomached a nearly 40 percent cut in donations. Operating in 13 counties where public transportation is poor, Schaefer has had to get creative to meet the growing need.

"We don't have any soup kitchens," he said. "We don't have pantries in the same types of volume as they do in the cities."

Many suburban food banks in the country have started packing food into the back of trucks and carting it to the community.

In Roy, cars line up in the parking lot of a local strip mall once a month, waiting for volunteers from the Utah Food Bank to heft big boxes of pasta and vegetables into their trunks. Sandwiched between a big SUV and an old, broken down Toyota that's holding onto its bumper with a mess of twine, there's a shiny silver Pontiac. Inside, a prim little grandmother in a smart cardigan and pink lipstick shyly admits, "Once upon a time, I was middle class." Her husband's insulation business crashed during the recession. The couple lost their house in the suburbs and are now living with their daughter.

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