Poverty in the suburbs – Hunger is a painful symptom


Americans moved to the suburbs after World War II to escape the problem of poverty in cities. Running away is no longer an option – the cities ‘ traditional woes are now in the suburbs, too. We have to recognize that the face of American poverty is an increasingly suburban one, and act accordingly.

The statistics came out last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One in ten Minnesota homes is “food insecure” – translated this means that kids are going to school hungry, parents are missing meals so their kids can eat, old Minnesotans are giving up meals to pay their medical bills, food shelves are struggling to meet demands.

This is Hunger Awareness Month, a time look beyond the data. As members of the faith community, nonprofits, schools and donors struggle to meet the challenge to cope with the results, A May 2013 Brookings Center study makes a strong case tor the imperative to frame the issue in a much broader and more contemporary context – to take an open and honest assessment of today’s map of poverty and to shape policies and procedures appropriate to the reality.

Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, fellows in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, are the principal authors of a major report entitled Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. (Brookings Institution Press, 2013) The authors reviewed fifty years of data, analyzed the trends, and ultimately concluded:

As poverty becomes increasingly regional in its scope and reach, it challenges conventional approaches that the nation has taken when dealing with poverty in place. Many of those approaches were shaped when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national War on Poverty in 1964. At that time, poor Americans were most likely to live in inner-city neighborhoods or sparsely populated rural areas. Fifty years later, public perception still largely casts poverty as an urban or rural phenomenon.

Beginning in this century poverty in the suburbs began to accelerate at a fast rate than poverty in the cities. As of 2011 suburban poor outnumbered urban poor by three million; one in three poor Americans lives in the suburbs.

The authors note that there are advantages for poor people living in the suburbs – better schools, safe neighborhoods, greater diversity, depending on job availability, shorter commutes.

Still, many other factors have driven poor people to relocate; among these are Section 8 housing vouchers, demolition of distressed public housing, the Fair Housing Act “were all part of a benign effort to de-concentrate poverty and open suburbia to low-income households, especially members of minority groups, who had been excluded for generations.

The problem is that the suburbs have not been able to keep up. The authors cite a number of reasons that are inherent in the federal programs themselves. . Some federal programs, e.g. Head Start and Community Health Centers and Block Grants were targeted to urban areas.

Targeted programs are not the only issue, however. Poverty in the suburbs is more diffuse, there may not be enough institutions or expertise to help the poor and, in some cases, “local leaders sometimes resist such programs, fearing they will only attract more poor residents.”

Furthermore, aid is fragmented among some eighty federal programs and at least ten federal agencies. These programs are administered at the local level by a host of different agencies. Programs cross jurisdictions and populations so that agencies responsible for delivery are required to deal with multiple bureaucracies, reporting procedures and regulations. IT goes without saying that needy families, the elderly, those for whom language is a barrier find the systems confusing at best.

Bottom line, the authors conclude: We need to transform social policy for the age of suburban poverty. We should equip regions with aid that cuts across jurisdictional lies, help them use limited resources more efficiently, and reinvent the system from the ground up.

Poverty is pervasive and pernicious; food insecurity is just one observable indicator. Efforts to address hunger are local, visible, measurable and understandable. Food Awareness Month offers a chance to focus on just one measure, a sort of swallow in the cave way to understand the reality and to reframe social policy in the light of 2013 reality.