Broke in the burbs: America's new poverty problem

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Article Politics Social Justice
The country’s cities may no longer be the epicenters of poverty.

After 18 months of unemployment that has refused to budge below 9.6 percent, it will come as no shock to learn that poverty is on the rise in the United States. The latest data from the Census Bureau reveals that 44 million Americans—one in seven—are currently struggling at the U.S. poverty line, $22,050 a year for a family of four. Twenty-one percent of all U.S. children are growing up poor. That’s up from 16 percent just 10 years ago, and it’s the highest measure of poverty in the country in more than 50 years.

But what may come as a surprise is where the poverty is. The Brookings Institution reports that poverty is increasingly migrating to the suburbs. Though concentrations of poverty remain highest in urban communities, there are now 1.5 million more poor citizens living in the suburbs than in cities. The recent rapid growth of poverty in America’s commuter belt has been unprecedented, and it has only been accelerated by the Great Recession.

Demand is spiking among suburban social aid providers. According to Brookings, almost three quarters of suburban nonprofits report seeing more clients with no previous connection to safety net programs. A majority are seeing more families with food needs and more frequent requests for mortgage or rent payment help.

Suburban poverty is a significant problem because, while social services of all sorts can be found in the nation’s urban centers, these critical safety valves simply aren’t available in the suburbs. It’s unlikely that such agencies are going to be relocated or reconstructed there by hard-pressed local and state governments. And the nation’s poor aren’t likely to “commute” to social services when just getting through the day is challenging enough.

According to Brookings, suburban safety nets for the poor are comprised of relatively few social service organizations that stretch operations across much larger areas than their urban counterparts. And when funders are considering where to direct their dollars, suburban providers are often overlooked. The structural problems generated by “commuting poverty” may take years to address—particularly at a time when the only civic war U.S. legislators seem keen on waging is against the nation’s annual budget deficit.

But few social ills benefit from inattention. Will critical services and interventions for a generation of at-risk children simply go undelivered because public focus and political winds have abruptly turned?

Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) at least appears intent on keeping poverty somewhere on the national agenda, even as demands for fiscal austerity drown out everything else. In 2010 CCUSA helped prepare the National Opportunity and Community Renewal Act, which calls for the modernization of measures of poverty in the United States—currently based on a formula first concocted in 1963—and outlines a plan that mandates greater flexibility, local autonomy, and systemic innovation in the way poverty is confronted. Before it starts swinging its budget ax, the new Congress should take a look at this important legislation.

The nation will be forced to make some difficult choices over the next few years as it confronts both the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the jaw-dropping annual deficits created by decades of bad tax and spending decisions. The nation’s poor have few lobbyists to defend their interests.

There will be a terrible temptation to throw the greatest burden of the nation’s budget woes across the backs of the poor at a time when their suffering has been magnified. Such ruthlessness would be an affront to human dignity in a country which, despite its economic travails, still remains one of the richest on earth and which still manages the obscenity of a defense budget that approaches $1 trillion a year.

The church’s preferential option for the poor pertains: Society’s wisdom and justice will be measured by how well it provides for its most vulnerable members, wherever they live.

This article appeared in the January 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 1, page 39).

Image: Illustration by Clare Rosean.