For First Time, Poverty Shifts to the Suburbs

Six years ago, Brian Lavelle moved out of the city of Cleveland to the nearby suburb of Lakewood for what he thought would be a better life. Back then, Lavelle, 38, was a forklift operator in a steel mill making $14 an hour. He had a house, a car and was saving for his retirement. Then, three years ago, the steel mill closed and Lavelle found that the life he dreamed of was just that, a dream. The suburbs, he quickly learned, are a tough place to live if you're poor. For starters, there isn't much of a safety net in his community. Food pantries, job-retraining centers and low-cost health clinics are hard to come by. He can't afford either gas or car insurance, and inadequate public transportation hurts him, too. Not long ago, he was offered a job in another suburb, "but it just wasn't doable." The commute by public bus would have taken him three hours each way.

Once prized as a leafy haven from the social ills of urban life, the suburbs are now grappling with a new outbreak of an old problem: poverty. Currently, 38 million Americans live below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as an annual income of $20,000 or less for a family of four. But for the first time in history, more of America's poor are living in the suburbs than the cities—1.2 million more, according to a 2005 survey. "The suburbs have reached a tipping point," says Brookings Institution analyst Alan Berube, who compiled the data. For example, five years ago, a Hunger Network food pantry in Bedford Heights, a struggling suburb of Cleveland, served 50 families a month. Now more than 700 families depend on it for food.

That's not to say that all suburbs are struggling. In areas such as New York and Los Angeles where the regional economies are booming, the surrounding suburbs are doing just fine. It's another story altogether in the South and Midwest. As the nation's manufacturing sector continues to contract, cities like Cleveland, Dallas and Detroit are feeling the pain, and so are the suburbs that surround them.

The suburban poor defy stereotypes about how and why people slip into poverty. Howard and Jane Pettry, of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, see themselves as working-class—just facing hard times. In December, Jane was laid off from her job at a local supermarket, and a week later Howard had a heart attack and missed a month of work from his job at a grain mill. Now Jane's collecting unemployment and they're staring at the poverty line as they struggle to pay the mortgage and the bills. "I've worked all my life and paid my taxes," says Jane. "Now we're living off credit cards. It's terrible."

Suburban poverty can also be invisible. Poor people who live in the city tend to be concentrated in subsidized housing or in neighborhoods where the rent is low, which in turn attract retail businesses that target customers with low incomes. Poor suburbanites often live in the same ZIP codes as their affluent neighbors, shop at the same stores and send their children to the same public school. And if people don't see themselves as poor, they often don't seek the help they need.

Help appears to be on the way. The new Democratic majority in Congress is trying to make good on its promise to raise the minimum wage for the first time in 10 years. Bills upping the hourly rate from $5.15 to $7.25 by 2009 have passed both the House and the Senate. But analysts at the Economic Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, say that while some 4.5 million suburbanites will benefit from a minimum-wage hike, it's not enough. "It's not a living wage, it's a minimum wage," says EPI senior economist Jared Bernstein, who says there's still a yawning gap between what people earn and what it costs to live that must be addressed.

Brian Lavelle says that any help would be appreciated. It's winter and his gas bill is sky-high—$185 last month. A single dad with two kids, Lavelle is making ends meet, but just barely. "It's tough out there," he says. He never thought he'd be saying that about the suburbs.