MSNBC, February 11, 2007: Poor Among Plenty

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By Peg Tyre and Matthew PhilipsNewsweek

Sixyears ago, Brian Lavelle moved out of the city of Cleveland to thenearby 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 thelife he dreamed of was just that, a dream. The suburbs, he quicklylearned, are a tough place to live if you’re poor. For starters, thereisn’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 publictransportation hurts him, too. Not long ago, he was offered a job inanother suburb, “but it just wasn’t doable.” The commute by public buswould have taken him three hours each way.

Onceprized as a leafy haven from the social ills of urban life, the suburbsare now grappling with a new outbreak of an old problem: poverty.Currently, 38 million Americans live below the poverty line, which thefederal government defines as an annual income of $20,000 or less for afamily of four. But for the first time in history, more of America’spoor are living in the suburbs than the cities1.2 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 BedfordHeights, a struggling suburb of Cleveland, served 50 families a month.Now more than 700 families depend on it for food.

That’snot to say that all suburbs are struggling. In areas such as New Yorkand Los Angeles where the regional economies are booming, thesurrounding suburbs are doing just fine. It’s another story altogetherin the South and Midwest. As the nation’s manufacturing sectorcontinues to contract, cities like Cleveland, Dallas and Detroit arefeeling the pain, and so are the suburbs that surround them.

Thesuburban poor defy stereotypes about how and why people slip intopoverty. Howard and Jane Pettry, of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, seethemselves as working-classjust facing hard times. In December, Janewas laid off from her job at a local supermarket, and a week laterHoward had a heart attack and missed a month of work from his job at agrain mill. Now Jane’s collecting unemployment and they’re staring atthe 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’reliving off credit cards. It’s terrible.”

Suburbanpoverty can also be invisible. Poor people who live in the city tend tobe concentrated in subsidized housing or in neighborhoods where therent is low, which in turn attract retail businesses that targetcustomers with low incomes. Poor suburbanites often live in the sameZIP codes as their affluent neighbors, shop at the same stores and sendtheir children to the same public school. And if people don’t seethemselves as poor, they often don’t seek the help they need.

Helpappears to be on the way. The new Democratic majority in Congress istrying to make good on its promise to raise the minimum wage for thefirst 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 analystsat the Economic Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, say thatwhile some 4.5 million suburbanites will benefit from a minimum-wagehike, 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 ayawning gap between what people earn and what it costs to live thatmust be addressed.

Brian Lavelle says thatany help would be appreciated. It’s winter and his gas bill issky-high$185 last month. A single dad with two kids, Lavelle is makingends meet, but just barely. “It’s tough out there,” he says. He neverthought he’d be saying that about the suburbs.

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