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Suburban Poverty Grows Unabated

Suburban Poverty Grows Unabated


Poverty isn't always what it seems, and a new report from the Brookings Institute proves just that. While many people think of poverty as an “inner-city” issue, it's not limited by city lines. The Twin Cities ranks in the top ten of metro areas with the fastest-growing suburban poverty rates. From 2000 to 2011, poverty rose 127.9 percent in the Twin Cities suburbs, with places like Apple Valley and Shakopee among those experiencing the fastest growth. Over the same time period poverty rose 47.7 percent in the core cities, which is distressing in itself.

To be certain, poverty is still higher in Minneapolis and St. Paul proper: the rate is 23.8 percent in the cities and 7.8 percent in the suburbs. (We also know that rural poverty is a significant issue, though not studied in this report.)

What's behind the rise? The Brookings Institute points to a few causal factors. The first, unsurprisingly, is the economy. Families that have established themselves in the suburbs for many years have fallen into poverty as they lose jobs, their home value declines, and the cost of food and transportation rise. Some of the change is also driven by sheer population growth, especially lower-income people moving to the suburbs in search of cheaper housing.

No matter how people become poor in suburbia, they face some significant challenges. Public transportation, for one, is limited, restricting access to jobs. Many of the nearby jobs are in retail, food service, and other low-paying fields. The study found that about 18 percent of poor Twin Cities suburbanites lacked any access to transit, and that less than one-third of the area's jobs were accessible via transit within 90 minutes.

Another challenge is accessing social services to fill a family's budget gaps. Many of these services are more concentrated in the core cities, meaning that food shelves, government centers, free clinics, etc. are tough to get to. Many service providers have expanded their suburban reach (Hennepin County, for instance, is shifting from one human-service center downtown to several sites scattered across the county), but are still more spread out than in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

While troubling, the Brookings report is an important reminder that things aren't always what they seem. The family down the block in your middle-class neighborhood may be in foreclosure and crushed with medical debt. Your child's classmates may be skipping meals on weekends when their free lunches aren't available. Those new folks who moved in with your neighbors might be doubling up because they have nowhere else to live. The need is all around us. How will we respond?

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