Poverty in the ‘Burbs – Pay the Mortgage or Buy Groceries?

Interesting article today in The Economist on the closing of the poverty gap between our urban and suburban centers. It seems, once a month I’m asked to pass on a newly created food pantry or charitable fund geared to residents in our suburbs. This article certainly highlights the grim reality of our economic times.

Poverty in the suburbs

Mortgage or food

The poverty gap is closing between suburbs and inner cities

FOR more than half a century, Americans have fled the cities in their millions, heading away from crime and poverty towards better schools and safer neighbourhoods in the suburbs. Now poverty is catching up with them. According to two new reports from the Brookings Institution, over the past decade the number of poor people in the suburbs has jumped by a whopping 37.4% to 13.7m, compared with some 12.1m people below the poverty line in cities. Although poverty rates remain higher in the inner cities, the gap is narrowing.

Suburban areas largely escaped during earlier downturns, but not this time. Support groups say people are using safety-net programmes, such as food stamps or unemployment insurance, who have never applied for them before. They are often making tough choices. “It’s mortgage or food,” observes Paule Pachter of Long Island Cares, a non-profit group on Long Island, one of the first destinations to be populated by escapees from the city.

In June the group opened a storefront “triage” centre on Sunrise Highway, one of Long Island’s main arteries; it is just across the road from the Freeport railway station, from which thousands of people commute to New York. People in need can use the centre to get free groceries, clothes, job training and even pet food. The numbers using the centre are exceeding forecasts by two-thirds.

The suburbs often do not have the network of social services necessary to deal with the growing numbers who are struggling. And the facilities that do exist are spread thin, often covering large areas and crossing town and county lines. Candy Hill, of Catholic Charities, relates how some suburb-dwellers in Louisiana have to drive for an hour to get to agencies based in New Orleans. Scott Allard, of Brookings, once saw a family pushing a shopping trolley along a motorway after leaving a food pantry sited in a suburban industrial estate.

The reports paint a grim picture. Poverty rates are expected to continue to increase. Non-profit organisations are having to do more with less staff and less funding. Almost a third of them have had to lay off staff because of lost grants, and one in five has had to reduce services. And with state and local governments lacking cash, more funding cuts are expected.

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