"You see people in all these nice cars lining up to get free food," said Jennie Probert, volunteer coordinator for the Utah Food Bank for Roy and Layton. "You're quick to judge, 'Can you afford that car?' But it's just a sign of the times."
Some suburban communities are still saying, "We have poor people here?" said Elizabeth Kneebone, senior research associate at the Brookings Institute. But others are already on the ball, looking for solutions.
The municipalities surrounding Chicago, for example, have teamed up to address common issues like creating affordable housing and improving jobs and transportation.
"The current research shines a light on what we've learned the hard way on the ground," said Robin Snyderman, vice president of community development for the Metropolitan Planning Council in Illinois. "It's often the smaller towns that really need the most federal, state and county assistance and they're the ones who are least equipped to pursue it."
Big city governments have departments devoted to economic development, she said. In smaller towns, staff often have to wear multiple hats. Federal and state grant money goes to the best bid. With less manpower and experience, suburban communities lose out.
By hiring a joint staff to improve the safety net in multiple municipalities, Illinois's suburban governments are becoming "far more efficient" in serving the poor, she said.
"We've been able to leverage new resources, build capacity and we've seen the dollars come in as a result," she said. "This isn't an unsolvable problem. It's just a matter of taking what you have and making things work."
Smith shares the sentiment.
Her husband is three months into a new job. And though it will be months still before the family is caught up on bills, she is optimistic. Because she is unemployed, Smith is now able to home school her elementary-school-aged boys. She has learned all about coupon clipping and cooking from scratch. The experience, dreadful as it has been, has given her a new perspective on life.
"I feel like I really understand what's important," she said. "I have two great kids, I'm trying to raise them well, teach them good things. There's so much good in my life, I can't dwell on the bad."
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