In Maplewood, a charitable Angel Fund is buying shoes so a kindergartener can attend school. In Bloomington, the local food shelf is scrambling to meet soaring demand. And in Brooklyn Center, city officials approved a new ordinance to cope with the community’s abundance of vacant houses.
The Great Recession has hit most Twin Cities suburbs hard, and now fresh data is confirming what city, school and social-service officials have been observing close up: poverty in our metro-area suburbs is surging.
A new analysis of recently released U.S. Census numbers shows that the poverty rate in Minnesota’s suburban cities has risen to 7.6 percent in 2010 – an increase from 4 percent in 2000 and 5.8 percent in 2007.
Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them.
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Some suburban cities — Brooklyn Center, Crystal and Maplewood, among them – are experiencing significant gains in numbers of poor residents.
Well over half — 56 percent — of the Twin Cities metro area’s poor population now live in the suburbs, compared to 46 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis of Census data conducted by Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution.
In 2000, there were close to 90,000 people living below the poverty line in the suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul. By 2007, just before the economy tanked, the number had risen to 147,000. According to 2010 Census data that number now stands at more than 197,000.
In other words, the number of suburban dwellers living below the poverty line jumped almost as much in the last three years during the Great Recession than it had in the previous seven.
(The poverty threshold, particularly in this time of rising prices, is sobering: $11,344 annual income for individuals and $22,113 for a family of four. Additionally, in Minnesota, about one million — one in four Minnesotans — are considered “near poor” with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty threshold.)
The same suburban poverty trend is true around the nation, where a majority of people now live in suburbs. After 2000, the poor population in U.S. suburbs increased by more than half. As a result, for the first time more than half of the metro poor now live in suburbs.
Not all suburbs
But make no mistake, urges Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Race and Poverty and author of three books on metropolitan development, that though generally the suburbs are getting poorer, “It’s not all of them. It tends to be the older suburbs, suburbs not as strong financially, suburbs built for middle-income people, not wealthy people.
“Look at the inner ring suburbs, you can see they’re getting poorer faster,” he says, except for the wealthier suburban cities such as Edina and Mendota Heights, or better-off parts of suburbs such as West Bloomington. Those are remaining pretty economically secure, says Orfield, a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings, the Washington, D.C., think-tank that analyzed the poverty data.
Orfield uses the numbers of children economically qualifying for free and reduced school lunch as a measurement of poverty and sees that parts of some suburban areas, such as Brooklyn Center, Richfield, East Bloomington andBrooklyn Park, are “on track to become much poorer than the central cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
As the recession has played out, suburban officials and social service agencies are seeing the results in terms of foreclosed homes and vacant properties, as well as rising need.
In the Maplewood school district, for instance, the Angel Fund stepped up to pay for a second pair of shoes for twin kindergartners so both could attend school on the same day. At first, each child attended school on alternate days because their mother had only one pair of shoes for her children to share.
“The need has drastically increased, drastically increased,” says Marylee Abrams, who tells that story in connection with her position as board member of the charitable 622 Education Foundation for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, which funds the Angel Fund. Schools officials, she says, talk of homeless families living in their cars.
And Abrams says her church, North Haven in North St. Paul, this fall started stocking backpacks with macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and applesauce and sending them home on Fridays to tide poor school children over the weekend.
Demand for social services
At Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP) in Bloomington, the largest food shelf in the state and a provider of other socials services as well, numbers are ballooning.
In 2006 VEAP, which also serves Edina, Richfield and south Minneapolis, provided food and economic support — such as help with mortgage or rent and car repairs — to 11,000 people. In 2010 the agency served 19,000 — not unexpected, considering in Bloomington the poverty rate in 2000 was 4 percent but increased to 10.6 percent in 2009. In Richfield, poverty numbers rose from 6.3 percent to 10.7 percent.
“We continue to break our own records,” says VEAP’s Executive Director Susan Russell Freeman.
For almost 40 years, VEAP has helped mainly the working poor, people with low-wage jobs working in the Bloomington-area hospitality industry, for example. But things are different now, Freeman says.
“More people who are living on the edge are having more problems,” she says. “[T[he moderate middle class is starting to murmur, to say some of this stuff isn’t right.”
Plus, financial donations to the agency are not keeping pace with increased need. “Donors are feeling the pinch or they’re scared,” she says.
The change is apparent, too, in the city halls of suburban cities, once the middle class’s escape from the problems of the urban core cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Brooklyn Center, a victim of some of the highest numbers of home mortgage foreclosures in the state, had to adopt a vacant building ordinance to deal with the housing crisis. And the city jumped onboard when the state offered additional tax revenues, plus partnered in the ReNew Buyer Incentive Program, to provide down-payment and closing-cost assistance to those purchasing a foreclosed home, says City Manager Curt Boganey. Poverty there rose from 7.4 percent to 14.1 percent.
Other signs of troubled economy
In Bloomington, foreclosure rates have “hung around about 1 percent” of some 25,000 single family, duplex and townhomes every year since 2008, says Lynn Moore, the city’s code enforcer. Still, there are signs of a troubled economy, foreclosures and job loss.
“We seem to be mowing more properties than we did five years ago. We certainly pick up a lot more refuse,” Moore says. She adds that more homes show signs of deferred maintenance, like the need of a coat of paint.
“It is a financial struggle for people,” agrees Maplewood City Manager Jim Antonen. “Certainly we can see a marked trend in our road and street projects.” Maplewood’s poverty rate jumped from 4.8 percent in 2000 to 11.4 percent, according to the most recent data.
This year more Maplewood residents are claiming financial hardship when it comes to paying their share of street upgrades and are allowed to defer payment of those fees, Antonen says.
Plus, “We’re trying to do more with less,” Antonen adds, explaining how a few years back a street rebuilding project likely would have gotten an “eight-cylinder” job, but now it will probably be “a six-cylinder” model.