Wisconsin State Journal, November 22, 2007: More poor move into suburbs

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By Gena Kittner

SUN PRAIRIE — LaQueshia Etchin ‘s visit to the city ‘s food pantry on Saturday wasn ‘t the first time she ‘d swallowed her pride and asked for help feeding her family, but this year was the first time she ‘s needed public assistance providing a Thanksgiving dinner.

“This is my first time ever getting a Thanksgiving basket, ” said Etchin, who lost her job as a customer service representative this year. She ‘s now working part time but needs help providing for her children, ages 5 and 7. “I don ‘t really like to be needy and dependent on people (but) I needed assistance this year. I feel thankful to get a box. ”

The Community Action Coalition distributed more than 300 boxes in the city last week. But even that didn ‘t reach half of the Sun Prairie families who receive public assistance. That number has jumped 170 percent since 2000, from 284 to 766 families.

“We were shocked, ” Dane County Human Services Manager Ron Chance said of the increase, which some officials attribute to the availability of inexpensive three-bedroom apartments and duplexes.

“Almost all those people are working, ” said Chance, who oversees the county ‘s Joining Forces for Families offices. “They ‘ve come out to Sun Prairie because of the housing stock and the jobs. “

The large increase is being felt most keenly at the city ‘s emergency food pantry, which served a record 510 families in October.

When energy prices increase, some people have to make a choice between paying rent, filling their tank, paying medical bills and buying food, pantry president Mark Thompson said. “What we ‘re challenged by is the ability to keep food available to our clients. “

Increasing concern

Poverty, often associated only with decaying urban centers, has become an increasing concern in the suburbs. As communities like Sun Prairie grow, so does the economic disparity of the people who live there. The city doesn ‘t look impoverished, Thompson said, but there are “pockets of Sun Prairie every bit as needy as Madison. “

Other suburbs have seen a jump in the number of poor families. Some, like Cottage Grove, DeForest, McFarland and Windsor — all much smaller than Sun Prairie — have seen an even faster rate of growth in the number of families on public assistance.

Higher poverty levels are also showing up in area schools. Of the 537 students who moved into the Sun Prairie School District during the 2006-07 school year, 49 percent qualified for the federal free or reduced-price meal program, said Tim Culver, Sun Prairie School District superintendent.

Overall, about 18 percent of the district ‘s students qualified for the subsidized meal program last year, an increase of about 3 percent over four years ago.

County responsible

Sun Prairie Mayor Joe Chase said while the city does help fund programs like the YMCA youth center and Colonial Club senior center, it doesn ‘t run any social service programs itself or operate any homeless shelters, relying instead on the county to help poor residents make ends meet.

That ‘s not uncommon, said Lynn Green, director of Dane County Human Services. Aside from Madison, which provides some assistance for homeless and child-care programs, “The real burden of responsibility is with the county, ” she said.

Municipal leaders say tight local budgets give them little to work with when it comes to new public assistance programs. Assuming more responsibility for those programs also would just shift the taxpayer burden from one entity to another, Green said.

Sun Prairie is, however, investing in neighborhood police officers and working with landlords to improve screening of potential residents, said Sun Prairie Ald. John Murray.

He said people at all economic levels are attracted to the city ‘s mix of affordable housing, good schools and proximity to jobs. “I think that ‘s where we ‘ve had the most impact … to keep rental housing in Sun Prairie as affordable and safe as possible. “

Paying rent

Kim Ihle has lived in Sun Prairie for 10 years and has relied on public assistance programs off and on for about half that time for help with rent and food supplies.

Ihle, who ‘s going through a divorce, got help paying her October rent and needs help again this month.

“Right now I haven ‘t even paid my November (rent) and I don ‘t know how I ‘m going to, ” she said.

She and her children expected to have a simple Thanksgiving and was grateful to get a box of supplies last weekend.

“If I didn ‘t have it, we wouldn ‘t have much of a Thanksgiving, ” said Ihle, who has three children and works part time because one child has special needs.

Ihle knows she ‘s not alone straining to pay rent, afford gas and make ends meet.

“I try not to take the help if I don ‘t need it because I ‘m sure there ‘s other people who need it, ” she said. “I think people really struggle. I think there ‘s a need everywhere. “

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