You see people in all these nice cars lining up to get free food. You're quick to judge, 'Can you afford that car?' But it's just a sign of the times.
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.
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.
"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.28 comments on this story
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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