The Growing Problem of Suburban Poverty

There are still plenty of poor people in the cities, but suburban poverty is a bigger problem.

| January/February 2014

  • With seemingly everyone feeling the financial crunch, funding—a perennial problem for social welfare agencies—has decreased, too. That, coupled with the rapid rise of poverty in the suburbs, has made responding to the need especially difficult.
    Illustration By Karen Stolper
  • Since 2000, the number of poor people in the suburbs has grown by 64 percent, compared to 29 percent growth in cities.
    Illustration By Karen Stolper

When Ellen got the phone call from Hope House, a long-term homeless shelter in Villa Park, Illinois, confirming an available room, she was overcome with relief. “The tears just flowed,” she says. “Even the woman on the other end was crying.”

It had been a particularly emotional day. Earlier, because she could no longer afford to care for them, she had driven to the DuPage County animal shelter to drop off her beloved cats. “That was probably the most devastating thing I had to do,” she says.

The 62-year-old woman had never expected herself to be homeless. Ellen (who requested her last name not be used) has a stable, full-time job. She had been living in a condo she owned for the last 12 years, but while her adjustable rate mortgage and association fees kept increasing, her income did not, and she couldn’t keep up. She attempted to sell, but in the wake of the housing market crash, the condo’s value had dropped to less than what she still owed on the mortgage. Even a short sale wasn’t possible.

“I fell behind in a lot of my responsibilities,” she concedes. She was able to get her utility bills lowered through a budget plan but couldn’t find assistance with her mortgage payments. The condo went into foreclosure and Ellen, worried she would be physically evicted from her home by the county sheriff, moved into a hotel room paid for by her brother. She spent a few weeks with a friend and several nights sleeping in her car in a grocery store parking lot. She says she wasn’t the only one. The parking lot was scattered with people making their cars home for the night.

“The picture of a homeless person today is nothing compared to what it used to be. They’re not the homeless people sitting on street corners,” Ellen says. “We are normal, healthy, very educated. It’s just that we’ve fallen behind in certain things.”

Recently published data from the Brookings Institute confirms Ellen’s experience. Poverty in 2013 is different from when President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in his 1964 State of the Union address, when the national poverty rate was about 19 percent and largely concentrated in urban and rural areas. Back then, the suburbs were a symbol of the middle class. A single-family home with a garage and a yard is iconic even today for Americans, and for many it is a sign of success.

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