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America’s face of poverty continues to change: Nearly two-thirds more suburban residents now live below the poverty line than the number who did in 2000. Toledo-area suburbs have been among the hardest hit, with poverty rising more than 94 percent since then.
Those are among the conclusions of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, a book by two Brookings Institution fellows who spent months poring over U.S. Census Bureau data to develop the latest picture of national poverty trends. The book is being released today.
“When people think of poverty in America, they tend to think of inner-city neighborhoods or isolated rural communities. But today, suburbs are home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country,” co-author Elizabeth Kneebone, the book’s lead author, said. “Poverty is touching more people and places than before, challenging outdated notions of where poverty is and who it affects.”
The data do not suggest poverty is no longer a problem in the nation’s cities.
Two-thirds of this area’s poverty is anchored within the Toledo city limits, Ms. Kneebone said.
Just a few years ago, one of every four Toledoans was living below the poverty line. That percentage swelled to 30.1 percent of the city’s residents in 2011.
The percentage of residents in Toledo-area suburbs living below the poverty line stood at 12.4 percent in 2011, the Brookings research shows.
The Census Bureau statistics the authors used in their book shed light on how suburban poverty worsened between 2000 and 2011, the report’s study years and latest available data for this scope of research, Ms. Kneebone said.
More people in the suburbs have been living below the poverty line since the Great Recession of 2008, she said.
That recession and an earlier one that decade did not cause the trend. They merely poured kerosene on a fire already burning. The trend has been strong and under way since at least the 1980s, Ms. Kneebone said.
Rural Fulton County is tops among Toledo-area suburban areas for poverty growth. Its three-year rate of 10.8 percent of its population living below the poverty line between 2008-2010 is twice what it was in 2000, when 5.4 percent of that county’s population was considered poor.
A family of four is considered by federal definition to be living below the poverty line when its combined income is less than $22,314 a year.
Ottawa County, outlying parts of Lucas County, Oregon, and outlying parts of Wood County each had more of their populations sink into poverty than Toledo.
Nearly one of every three Bowling Green residents lived below the poverty line during that 2008-2010 time frame, up from 25.3 percent of Bowling Green’s population in 2000.
The ‘new poor’
Dan Rogers, Cherry Street Mission Ministries president and chief executive officer, likened the trend of poverty’s growth in the suburbs to slow-moving lava.
“It’s been a slow-moving flow you have to track over many generations,” he said.
The mission is intrigued by the results because it serves an 18-county region. When the need becomes greater in suburbs and rural areas, that can spread the mission thinner and reduce what it has for its core work in Toledo, Mr. Rogers said.
“The last couple of years we’ve been having more and more people from the suburbs come for even basic services. We’ve been tracking that migration for a couple of years now, how it’s moving more and more to the suburbs,” Mr. Rogers said.
One of his suburban clients recently remarked how he’d been a Cherry Street donor a year ago. Now he’s receiving services from the organization, Mr. Rogers said.
Many people who live in the suburbs are part of the demographic known as America’s “new poor” — a first generation of impoverished people who often are unaware of what services are available or too proud to apply for them because of the perceived stigma attached to them.
“It’s just freakishly embarrassing to them,” Mr. Rogers said. “Who are you really going to talk to out in the suburbs when you need food on your table?”
Gina Saaf, United Way of Fulton County executive director, said she was surprised to learn Fulton County had this region’s biggest jump in poverty. But she said she has seen signs of gradual decline in her 14 years with that agency.
“We’ve had a lot of homes foreclosed,” Ms. Saaf said.
Fulton County, like other parts of northwest Ohio, has been heavily reliant on the automotive industry. Domestic automakers have experienced a sales turnaround since the banking crisis of 2008, but many of the higher-paying jobs are gone.
“We still do have somewhat of an oversaturated work force,” Ms. Saaf said. “A lot of people need to retrain themselves.”
Similar issues, including hunger, permeate Fulton and Ottawa counties.
At Wauseon Primary School, 217 of 420 students in grades K-2 — nearly 52 percent of them — qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
“Obviously, people are struggling because that’s income-based,” Ms. Saaf said.
In Port Clinton, 40 to 50 percent of schoolchildren qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. The Lake Erie shoreline community serves about 75 lunches twice a week to underprivileged children during the summer, Chris Galvin, United Way of Greater Toledo’s Ottawa County director, said.
“Jobs aren’t coming back. We have some industry adding jobs. But I don’t think they will ever go back to prerecession levels,” Ms. Galvin said.
Ottawa County gives the illusion of prosperity to visitors because of its lake-based wealth.
But much of the county’s employment is in the service industry, which generally pays less and offers only jobs that are seasonal or part time, Ms. Galvin said.
Schools have experienced enrollment declines. The recent study showed Ottawa County has one of Ohio’s most aging populations, she said.
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No simple fix
The Brookings Institution study offers some suggestions to help reverse the trend. But Ms. Kneebone said there is no easy fix.
She said it’ll take years and a more coordinated effort from a regional standpoint on everything from transportation to housing to education.
The trend is a symptom of the nation’s economic infrastructure eroding over time, accentuated by the recent glut of housing foreclosures. It should not be viewed as a short-term blip on an economist’s radar screen that will clear up as hiring picks up, Ms. Kneebone said.
“These are not challenges that individual suburbs can tackle on their own, because we live in a regional marketplace,” she said.
Toledo’s problems are not unique. In recent years, suburban poverty has worsened in nearly every major metropolitan area.
The trend has occurred even in faster-growing areas with stronger economies, such as Seattle, Phoenix, and much of Florida, Ms. Kneebone said.
“One of the main takeaways is the landscape of poverty is changing,” she said. “It’s not easy being poor anywhere. ... But the pace of growth underscores the need to think beyond the cities. The pace of growth points to the need for more of a regional strategy.”
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.