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Poverty moves to the suburbs

Published: Monday, Feb. 10 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

In the last 10 years, the poor population in suburbs across America ballooned to 64 percent, versus 29 percent in cities, according to the Brookings Institute. Suburbia is now home to most of the nation's poor.

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HOUSTON — Parts of downtown Houston have changed dramatically in the last decade — humble, single-family homes have been replaced by chic downtown lofts and three-story townhomes.

Shabby retail strips have given way to shiny new shopping districts with upscale eateries and stores. “It’s a yuppie downtown crowd they are attracting — there’s Crate and Barrel, there’s Marble Slab,” says Elizabeth Ferrer, referring to the gourmet ice cream chain. “Once Marble Slab goes in, you know the neighborhood has changed."

Ferrer worked at Small Steps Nurturing Center, a nonprofit preschool that offers preschool education to at-risk kids in inner-city Houston. At one time the Small Steps location in Houston’s First Ward was walking distance for many of its families, but as gentrification has moved in, low-income families have moved out in search of cheaper rents.

Houston’s suburban poor population has more than doubled in the last 10 years, reflecting a national trend. Poverty in America is usually thought of as an inner-city problem, but that has rapidly changed.

"The ratio of low-income families shifted dramatically in the 2000s," says Elizabeth Kneebone, fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and co-author of the recent book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.” In the last 10 years, the poor population in suburbs across America ballooned to 64 percent, versus 29 percent in cities according to the Brookings Institute. Suburbia is now home to most of the nation’s poor.

The surging growth makes fighting the problem tricky, especially because anti-poverty programs are geared toward urban populations — assistance programs target high-density city poverty, often neglecting suburban poor. Still, some communities are finding smart ways to help.

The changing face of poverty

American poverty has long been associated with inner city and rural locations, while the suburbs evoke the country club and shopping mall enclaves of the affluent.

“It doesn’t match our popular conception of what poverty is, or what suburbs are; the key takeaway is that landscape of poverty has changed, but our perceptions and policies haven’t kept up,” says Kneebone.

What changed?

Two things, according to Kneebone: Gentrification and other factors pushing low-income families toward the suburbs, and families living in the suburbs becoming poor over time — some of them newly poor from the recession. In 2013, the poverty line for a family of four was an annual income of $23,550, according to the federal poverty guidelines.

“A lot of suburban families are only one crisis away from financial distress,” says Claudia Vasquez, Senior Vice President and Chief Program Director for Neighborhood Center of Houston, a nonprofit that serves low-income residents. “Someone gets sick and they can’t pay medical bills, and then they are in danger of losing their house — it’s a tumbling effect.”

Starting at square one

Houston has a vast suburban area, and displacement from natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Irene has changed the region economically. By 2011, 540,000 poor people lived in Houston’s suburbs.

Houston’s Neighborhood Centers is a social service nonprofit that serves 400,000 low-income residents a year including many suburban low-income families, and it has garnered attention for its unusual practices.

“Everything begins with the question: ‘What do you want — what do you have to offer?’ Rather than, ‘What is your deficit?’ ” says Claudia Vasquez, senior vice president and program director at Neighborhood Center.

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