Linda knows poverty in the midst of plenty.
Her family was desperately poor during her childhood, but they lived in a tony Portland suburb, attending school there with kids who were much more affluent.
Her home environment growing up, however, was far from idyllic. Linda and her siblings were exposed throughout her childhood to drug and alcohol abuse as well as domestic violence.
That led Linda (not her real name) to reckless behavior, including her own drug and alcohol addiction, followed by brief trips to jail. She tried to straighten out on several occasions, but slipped back, returning poverty to the forefront.
In his heart-wrenching novel, “There are No Children Here”, Alex Kotlowitz followed the lives of two young boys growing up in the projects of the near West Side of Chicago. There they were in the midst of ruinous poverty, rampant drug use, run-ins with the police and dysfunctional families.
The book resonated partly because poverty and associated ills are often seen as synonymous with big cities.
But times are changing. Linda now lives in suburban Tigard, not a rundown area of Chicago or inner city Portland.
As in her youth, she’s experiencing hardship, but this time she’s getting help through collaborative social service programs that promote self-sufficiency for homeless individuals and families. And she’s making real progress toward getting back on her feet. A big break came recently when she got a job.
The suburbs are struggling with an increasing number of residents living in poverty, including Tigard’s home, Washington County, which has a well-deserved reputation as the economic engine of Oregon with thousands of well-paying jobs.
The shift of poverty to the suburbs occurred around 2001, when data showed that more poor people lived in suburbs than in cities. The trend sped up with the Great Recession, which devastated many families.
One-fourth of poor people living in extremely poor neighborhoods in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas are in the suburbs, according to research at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. And suburbs account for four in ten poor individuals in those regions who live in areas of high poverty—a neighborhood poverty rate exceeding 20 percent.
Alan Berube, a Senior Fellow at Brookings, argues that contemporary anti-poverty strategies must recognize the different needs of poor families in both cities and suburbs. The suburbs, for example, often lack the density to deliver services in a distinct area, he says.
Poor families often spread over greater distances in the suburbs, and they face different barriers (transportation, for example) than city dwellers do. Moreover, as poverty spreads to the suburbs, it becomes less a neighborhood problem and more of a regional or sub-regional problem.
Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, say we need to recognize that growing jobs and fighting poverty are not separate initiatives. As U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski put it, the best social program is a job. In addition, we need to engage more partners, particularly the private sector, in efforts to improve outcomes for low-income people and places.
A few years into the painfully slow recovery from the Great Recession, the need remains high.