TOPICS > Economy

Suburb in Wealthy Illinois County Sees Unexpected Rise in Poverty

December 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A suburban neighborhood of one of the nation's wealthiest counties has experienced a surprising rise in the number of people living below the poverty line -- a trend that accelerated in suburbs across the country during the recession. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW Chicago reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, two stories about the changing portrait of America, first, a different kind of life in the suburbs.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of people living below the poverty line in U.S. suburbs increased by more than 50 percent, a trend that accelerated during the recession. It’s happening in places that have long been middle-class, as well as in richer neighborhoods.

Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW Chicago has our story.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: DuPage County, Ill., is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Comfortable homes sit on tree-lined streets in the suburb of Wheaton eight miles west of Chicago.

Upscale restaurants and shops line the historic downtown. But there is another side to DuPage County, one that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. It includes packed food pantries and crowds at the county welfare office.

Candace King coordinates human services in DuPage County, and she has watched poverty grow.

CANDACE KING, Federation of Human Services Reform: It’s exploded. In the 16 years that I have been in my job, it has gone from something that was rarely encountered in this community, and certainly no one thought it was here, to an issue that we encounter every day.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Over the last 20 years, poverty in DuPage County has grown by 185 percent. Nearly 60,000 people here live in poverty, defined by the federal government as earning $22,350 a year for a family of four.

And now a Brookings Institute analysis of census data finds that, for the first time in the Chicago area, there are more people in poverty in the suburbs than in the city.

In this Wheaton housing complex, 11 of the townhomes are in foreclosure. After almost two years of trying, 43-year-old Catherine Aravosis was finally able to renegotiate her mortgage and save her home. But she and her two children live far below the poverty line.

Aravosis had a middle-class upbringing. Her father was a college professor, and, in 2008, she got her second master’s degree, this one in elementary education. But, because of cuts in state education funding, she hasn’t been able to find a full-time teaching job.

Last year, she made $11,000 as a substitute teacher, far less than what she needs to support her two children.

CATHERINE ARAVOSIS, homeowner: It has been hard for me because I want to provide for them in a way my parents provided for me. I never knew what my parents made. I never had to worry about a thing. We just lived a really stable, typical middle-class existence. And for my children, they don’t have that sense of security that I had. They know when I’m stressed. And that hurts.

WOMAN: You will get one item out of the bucket behind him.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Aravosis is part of the newly poor demographic that account for much of the rise in poverty in the suburbs. Ten years ago, she and her husband, an architect, were earning a six-figure income and living in a five-bedroom home in Wheaton.

They divorced in 2004. Her former husband’s architectural commissions dried up in 2008, and he has had trouble making child support payments. Aravosis tried to get Medicaid for her children. But the state threatened to take her former husband’s architect license because of lack of child support, and she backed off.

CATHERINE ARAVOSIS: It’s those days when you get up and you really don’t know what you’re going to give your kids for dinner. And it can be a full-time job finding out, how am I going to get glasses? The prescription is a year-old. And where am I going to — you know, how do I go and get her the shots she needs? She’s going to sixth grade — not having the health insurance, not having the basic things that people take for granted, being able to get their kid to the doctor, you know, when they come home and say, we need $5 for school.

There’s always something. And, sometimes, you have to say, I don’t have it. I just don’t have it. I’m sorry.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Today, dinner comes from the local food pantry. She cooks in her Crock-Pot or microwave, since she can’t afford to repair her broken stove. Like many of the suburban poor, Aravosis never thought she would need help buying food.

CATHERINE ARAVOSIS: I didn’t expect to be using the food pantry, especially not on a regular basis. But, you know, I’m working, and I’m not making enough money to make ends meet. So, it’s very humbling, but I swallowed my pride and I went to the People’s Resource Center, and I asked for help.

Okay. I have to have pumpkin, right?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Aravosis can fill up a shopping cart once a week at the People’s Resource Center. The number of people using this food pantry in Wheaton has gone up by 200 percent in the last five years. There was a 30 percent jump in 2008 alone.

MELISSA TRAVIS, program director, People’s Resource Center: Make sure all the cart handles are clean.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The resource sister’s program director, Melissa Travis, says many of their clients are new to poverty.

MELISSA TRAVIS:  Oftentimes, the first time they come, they break into tears because they can’t imagine that they would ever need help in a way like this. They’ve been people that have paid taxes. They’re people that have volunteered and helped in places like this in the past. And now, suddenly, they have to go and seek out that assistance. So we give a lot of hugs.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Mary Kay Hopf could have used a hug the day she came to the food pantry. A registered nurse, Hopf has been out of work for several years. She grew up in Wheaton and enjoyed a far different lifestyle.

MARY KAY HOPF, registered nurse: My dad had a good job. We had the big house and the cars and all those other things, new wardrobe for school when that time of the year came around. I think that I’m one of the people who didn’t have to go without much. And, yeah, it’s a whole flip side of that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Three months of unemployment brought Mariano Menendez and his family to the food pantry for the first time.

Did you think you would ever wind up coming to a food pantry…

MARIANO MENENDEZ, unemployed: No, no, of course not, never, never. I’ve had good jobs. I have – I’ve made good income. I have — I — never in my wildest dreams. So, yes, I’m definitely very grateful for this. It’s an amazing, amazing service that they offer here.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The dramatic increase in poverty in suburban DuPage County mirrors the increase in poverty in suburban areas across the country.

That leaves human service agencies struggling to meet the needs in their communities. Yet federal, state and local funding still goes disproportionately to urban areas. That lack of federal and state resources to fight suburban poverty leaves existing agencies overwhelmed.

CANDACE KING: All of the growth in poverty in the state of Illinois has been in the suburban area. My organization did an analysis of federal funding and some state funding and private philanthropic funding, and found that the city of Chicago is getting up to four and five times more per poor person than DuPage County is.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That is not news to Melissa Travis at the People’s Resource Center.

MELISSA TRAVIS:  We are stretched. About six weeks ago, the food pantry was as empty as I have ever seen it in six-and-a-half years. We were trying to get through to our next delivery, and just hoping that we had enough food to give everybody what they needed. It’s been a devastating year in that regard.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Unlike many of the newly poor who have a hard time finding the resources that are available, Catherine Aravosis has taken advantage of all the programs at the People’s Resource Center. She has gotten clothes for herself and her kids and used the job counselors in her effort to find a full-time teaching job.

But having to accept help has changed the way she thinks of herself.

CATHERINE ARAVOSIS: I always thought of myself as middle-class. I had a middle-class upbringing. I had middle-class expectations. But the reality is that I’m not living a middle-class lifestyle anymore. So, no, I don’t think so. I think I have fallen out of the middle class.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Like many in her situation, she doesn’t see much hope of things improving. And while she wants to stay in Wheaton, life in suburbia is far different than she ever imagined it would be.