Poverty climbs in Chicago, U.S. suburbs

October 7, 2010 3:27:39 PM PDT
Poverty is soaring in Chicago's suburbs and many across the nation-- as is the strain on social service agencies that help, according to a report.

The study by the Brookings Institute shows the suburban working-age poverty level is now at its highest level since the 1960's. Some suburbs in the Chicago area have seen a big jump as well.

Those who study poverty say that unlike in the city, the poor are more easily overlooked in the suburbs. The Brookings Institute hopes the report will change that.

Out of work as a plumber for nearly a year, Thomas Sewell seeks help at the Niles Township food pantry in Skokie.

"When you run out of food you have no choice really," said Sewell. He says the stigma of being poor in the suburbs is something many people just need to get over.

It's that stigma, University of Chicago researcher Scott Allard says, that has many suburbs scrambling to deal with a surge in people earning less than the federal poverty level which is which is just under $11,000 for an individual or $22,000 for a family of four.

"I think it's important to realize poverty is not just an urban phenomenon anymore," said Allard.

Allard's research found that in the last decade the poverty rate in Park Forest increased by 98-percent; Romeoville shot up 506 percent; Naperville, St. Charles and McHenry also saw significant surges.

While the number of people below the poverty line may be relatively low compared to cities like Chicago, experts says being poor in these communities presents a unique set of challenges.

"In the suburbs you have to travel so far to find help it's really challenging," said Allard.

In Naperville, a food pantry called "Loaves and Fishes" is helping more people than ever, as some in this largely affluent suburb struggle.

"in the first quarter of our fiscal year July, August, September, we've experienced the largest increase that we had since the recession began," said Charles McLimans, Naperville food pantry director.

In Skokie, the pantry has had to double the amount of food they order just to keep up with demand.

"We're seeing first time people who have never been to a food pantry," said Cynthia Carranzo, Niles Township Food Pantry.

Sewell, who started coming to the food pantry a year ago, now volunteers, assembling food for others while looking for a paying job to get out of poverty.

"I came here before because I needed food and they helped me out so I figured I'd give back for what they gave me," said Sewell.

Study: Suburban poor not finding help

The study, which looked at metropolitan areas in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., found social service providers are often spread thin in the suburbs as aid typically goes to cities first.

"Millions of Americans at all income levels moved to the suburbs looking for better schools, better jobs, affordable housing, and a sense of security, but in recent years, as incomes have fallen, people had a harder and harder time making ends meet," said Scott Allard, a University of Chicago professor who co-wrote one of the reports.

"As a result, Americans who never imagined becoming poor are now asking for assistance, and many are not getting the help they need."

After the recession began in 2007, the suburbs continued to post larger increases in the number of poor -- adding 1.8 million, compared with 1.4 million in the cities.

The findings come weeks before the Nov. 2 congressional elections in which voters anxious over the economy will decide whether to keep Democrats in power. Made up of both cities and surrounding suburbs, the large metro areas represent two-thirds of the U.S. population and are home to battlegrounds that helped lift Democrat Barack Obama to victory in 2008.

Cities still have higher poverty rates -- about 19.5 percent, compared with 10.4 percent in the suburbs. But the gap has been steadily narrowing. In a reversal from 2000, the number of poor people living in the suburbs now exceeds those in cities by roughly 1.6 million.

Analysts attribute the shift largely to years of middle-class flight and substantial shares of minorities and immigrants leaving cities in the early part of the decade for affordable housing and job opportunities in the suburbs. After the housing bust, their fortunes changed, throwing millions out of work.

More than half, or 57, of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas had substantial increases in poverty. They were most evident in Sun Belt suburban areas including Modesto and Riverside, both in California, as well as the Florida cities of Lakeland, Orlando, Miami and Tampa, which had seen large population gains during the housing boom.

Also hit hard were Rust Belt manufacturing regions such as Detroit, Cleveland and Allentown, Pa., where the poverty rate soared to 29 percent from 19 percent.

Nationally, the government reported last month that 14.3 percent of people in the U.S., or 1 in 7, now live below the poverty line, which is $21,954 for a family of four. Among the working-age population, poverty is at 12.9 percent, the highest since the 1960s, when the government launched a campaign against poverty.

Based on unemployment rates that remain near 10 percent, many analysts predict increases in the U.S. poverty rate for at least two more years, with suburbs continuing to struggle.

Additional findings:

--Poor people's requests to nonprofit groups for help buying food, paying bills and making housing payments generally jumped 30 percent between 2008 and 2009. About 3 out of 4 nonprofit groups reported more requests from people who had never sought help before.

--Almost half of the nonprofit groups serving the suburban poor reported they had lost substantial government or private-sector aid in the last year. Many of them were expecting additional cuts in 2011.

--Suburban nonprofit groups were often spread across multiple counties, cities or townships. That made it difficult to coordinate services across sprawling areas or obtain money, compared with cities where poverty was more concentrated.

--Private philanthropic support for nonprofit social service groups more often helped the poor in cities than in suburbs, due partly to a belief that cities needed more help.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, said the numbers highlighted a need for local governments to develop regional approaches to tackling poverty that encompass both city and suburb.

While suburban poverty is a growing problem, Kneebone noted that city poverty also rose significantly in the last year as the downturn spread from construction and manufacturing to other sectors. She said future poverty increases will be partly determined by the pace of economic recovery as well as government policy decisions promoting job growth, affordable housing and transportation.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report. All Rights Reserved.)


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