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Poverty rates surge in American suburbs

January 11, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
When President Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” fifty years ago, images of the American poor focused on the inner-city and rural poor. What is the state of American poverty today? Megan Thompson reports on the less visible but growing number of poor in America’s suburbs.
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MEGAN THOMPSON: By all appearances, Leigh Scozzari is living a comfortable suburban life.  She baked cookies one recent afternoon with her four-year-old twins at her mom’s place in Shirley, Long Island – about 65 miles east of New York City.  Scozzari owns an SUV… the girls spend their days at a nice day care center …and Scozzari works a full-time job. 

LEIGH SCOZZARI: A lot of people look at me and they judge me just by looking at me, like, “Okay, well, she has a job, you know.  She– you know, she has a home and– you know, her kids look very well taken care of.  Why would she need any help at all?”

MEGAN THOMPSON  Scozzari needs help because by official standards, she and her daughters live in poverty.  Her job as a certified medical assistant pays just over 19,000 a year and offers no benefits.  So Scozzari is on Medicaid, gets food stamps, and a government subsidy to pay for child care she could never otherwise afford.  This 30-year old single mom lives in that two-bedroom house with her mother and pays rent.  Her car has almost 200,000 miles on it and is in such bad shape Scozzari says she’s afraid to drive it.

LEIGH SCOZZARI: I live paycheck to paycheck.  That’s what it is right now.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Do you have any savings?

LEIGH SCOZZARI: Typically, I have enough probably to get me through the next week or so.  But as far as having a savings, no. I worry about– not being able to have enough food to feed the girls. I worry about them not having the opportunities that other kids– are going to have. So I’m constantly worrying, you know, always worrying.

MEGAN THOMPSON  According to experts, stories like Leigh Scozzari’s are becoming more common across the United States.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: There are now more poor residents living in suburbs than in major cities.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Elizabeth Kneebone is a fellow at The Brookings Institution and co-author of the book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.” 

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: Poverty in these kinds of communities can be hidden.  It can be harder to identify– or– even understand the extent to which the need has grown, because it may not be– easily visible.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Today the nation’s poverty rate is about 15 percent compared to 19 percent in 1964 when President Johnson declared the War on Poverty. 

PRESIDENT JOHNSON:  Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Kneebone says since then, some aspects of the problem have changed dramatically.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: When we saw the sort of launch of the war on poverty– the geography of poverty, it was very different than what we’re looking at today.  The bulk of poor people in the country lived in urban areas, in big cities or in rural communities.  And since that time, we’ve seen a real shift. 

MEGAN THOMPSON:  According to Kneebone, since 2000, the number of poor people living in suburbs has grown by 65 percent. 

For example, poverty is up by almost 16 percent in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.  Up more than 27 percent in the suburbs of providence.  Nearly 79 percent outside Seattle.  And in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, the number of poor has swelled almost 143 percent.  More poor people now live in America’s suburbs than in cities or in rural areas.

The main explanation for this shift is simply demographics.  Many more Americans have moved to suburbs in recent years, and that growth included low-income residents and new immigrants.  Other factors – suburbs are still recovering from the foreclosure and financial crises.  Kneebone says federal programs for the poor were mostly designed back in the 60’s with rural or urban communities in mind, and when hard times came to the suburbs, many weren’t prepared.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: Often suburban communities– have not built up the same level of infrastructure– and– safety net supports that cities have been building up over decades.

RICHARD KOUBEK: Oh, boy.  Where do I begin with the challenges?

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Richard Koubek chairs the Welfare to Work Commission in Suffolk County, where Leigh Scozzari lives.  It advises the county legislature on issues affecting low-income residents.  Local governments – already strapped themselves – face greater burdens in the face of federal budget cuts and the winding down of stimulus funds.

RICHARD KOUBEK: Suffolk County in the last couple of years has faced $500 million deficit.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Even though Suffolk County has one of the highest median household incomes in the country, and multi-million dollar homes in the Hamptons… the food stamp caseload has soared, up 185 percent in the past six years.  That’s the case throughout much of America….food stamp use up dramatically… from coast to coast.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE:  It can be very difficult, especially in this budget-constrained environment, to try and scale up to meet the level of need that they’re seeing.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  In Suffolk County, charities have stepped as the local government has had a hard time meeting the demand. Food pantry organizers say they’ve seen numbers double in recent years… even in some of the county’s most affluent towns.  Carol Yarmosh leads the mercy house food pantry in Dix Hills.

CAROL YARMOSH: We used to be a one of a few food pantries.  But now we’re one of very many food pantries.  It’s– multiplying on a level that it’s hard to comprehend.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Advocates say they’re not just serving people out of work. They see many with jobs who just can’t make ends meet – just like Leigh Scozzari.   Nationally, real wages, adjusted for inflation, have been flat for several decades…even as costs continue to rise.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: We also have these larger shifts in the economy where a lot of the jobs we’re creating– don’t pay enough to make ends meet for a family. So, even if you’re working full time– you’re just not taking home enough.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  that’s especially true in Suffolk County, where many working poor don’t qualify for government help because they earn too much to be considered officially “poor” – around $23,500 for a family of four.

RICHARD KOUBEK: Despite our affluence, we have a lot of middle income people who are struggling.  We are one of the most expensive communities in the United States in terms of everything, gasoline, housing, food.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  In 2012, Koubek’s commission put out a study estimating that, because of the high cost of living here, the poverty rate’s at least 20 percent– that’s three times higher than the official census figure of less than 7 percent.

Another major problem and expense: transportation.  In many suburbs, public transportation is limited.   Until recently, buses in Suffolk County didn’t run on Sundays.

RICHARD KOUBEK: If you’re a working poor person, if you’re for example, a home health aide, many of them work on Sundays, what do you do?  How do you get to work?  /unless someone drives you, you take a cab which could eat up 20 to 50 percent of what you’re earning that day.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  So many poor people, like Leigh Scozzari, depend on their car.  And car insurance and gas eat up about $600 – more than 40 percent — of the estimated $1400 she takes home each month. 

And in case you’re wondering, Scozzari’s mom, who just turned 60, really isn’t in a position to help.  She’s working two jobs to maintain the family home she inherited.  And last year paid property taxes of around $7000 on their small two-bedroom home.

 MEGAN THOMPSON (TO SCOZZARI0: So why do you stay in this house if it– and in this neighborhood if it’s so expensive?

LEIGH SCOZZARI: This is her home.  She says she’ll never leave here.  I mean, I can’t force her to want to leave just because the cost of living’s inexpensive someplace else.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Scozzari says she’s also gotten no help from the twins’ father.

LEIGH SCOZZARI: Child enforcement– is trying to help me locate Dad.   Before I even knew that I was pregnant with them, I got up one day and he was gone. 

MEGAN THOMPSON: Some people might say, “Okay, the situation happened to you.  But why should taxpayers help fund– some of these programs that you are being helped by?”

LEIGH SCOZZARI: I mean, I started working when I was 12 years old.  I’ve been working ever since.    So I mean, I’ve put into just as much if not more than what I’m asking for, you know.  I understand the backlash, I really do.  But at the same time, this is only temporary. 

MEGAN THOMPSON:  But for the moment she’s facing a Catch-22.  The more she earns, the worse off she might be.  Because if she accepts the small raises she’s been offered at her job, she’d earn too much to qualify for the child care subsidy.  And if she lost that, she’d have to stay home with her kids…meaning she’d have no income at all.

RICHARD KOUBEK: A system that works against the system’s own interests.  It’s so counterproductive.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  The Suffolk County Welfare to Work Commission is trying to address this and other issues affecting the working poor.  It’s pushed for more child care funding …held hearings to call attention to growing poverty… and helped get some public bus lines running on Sundays and later at night.  Experts say it’s critical for suburbs across the nation to recognize and address the changing face of poverty.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE:  What we’re seeing in terms of the growth in suburban poverty is a real– pressing policy concern looking forward.  If we think about the war on poverty, 50 years ago when Lyndon Johnson declared this war, if everybody had known what was going to happen what would we have done differently?  This is our opportunity now for suburbs to answer those questions.