The typical picture of poverty in America is of single mothers. It’s of wounded veterans. It’s public housing towers, soup kitchen lines out the doors of churches and people begging for money on street corners. It’s of the inner city.

But poverty in America is actually much more varied than that. It takes many forms. And one is suburban poverty. Suburban poverty might look more like a family with married parents and children, living in a house they own. They probably have one or two cars. But this picture is slowly deteriorating as the parents lose their jobs, fail to make mortgage payments, sell the cars… Both the public perception of poverty and the historic location of poverty in urban areas make it particularly challenging to assist this suburban family in need.

When the soup kitchens and homeless shelters and jobs programs are all located in the city—the historic center of poverty—that family is left with few resources to help them get out of this situation.

Lack of resources

The problem of a lack of resources or safety net comes up in many conversations about suburban poverty. Sherrie Tussler is the Director of Hunger Task Force, a food bank that provides healthy and nutritious food free of charge to a network of food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. I spoke with Tussler to find out about the differences in Hunger Task Force’s service and interaction with suburban residents compared with urban patrons.

Tussler notes that most of the suburban pantries were founded in the 1990s and 2000s, unlike many urban pantries, which have been around since the 80s. Tussler also observed that most suburban pantries were faith-based, meaning they were operated out of churches and synagogues. These two pieces of information paint a picture of the nationwide suburban poverty trend: suburban poverty appeared on the scene only in the last few decades, and the existing organizations in the area have had to rise to meet this growing need.

Lack of connections

Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, researchers at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings write in their book, Confronting Suburban Poverty:

As the poor population in suburbia expanded rapidly during the 2000s, many suburban communities lacked the fiscal and nonprofit architecture to respond to the needs of those individuals and families. […Additionally,] communities without a well-entrenched social service network are less likely to have developed connections between providers that help clients overcome bureaucratic barriers to access a range of needed services. (62)

That last point is especially salient. In my own experience working in social services, connections with nearby agencies are vital. When I helped to run a rapid rehousing program at a homeless shelter in Milwaukee, my colleagues and I frequently worked with local discount stores, food pantries, energy companies, landlords, and after school programs to help meet our clients needs. We also had contacts in local government agencies who assisted our clients through the challenging processes of fighting evictions, setting up utility payment plans, clearing up court records, and more. The idea of building those networks from scratch, or forging ahead without connections to local agencies is daunting at best, futile at worst.

Different needs

Not only do suburbs lack the established service networks to help people in poverty, but the needs of those people differ in the suburbs as well. In the last decade, Tussler has noticed an increase in the family sizes served by suburban Milwaukee pantries: “Suburban households are more likely to have families,” she said. “Urban households are more likely to be individuals.” Where a single man might be able to walk to a soup kitchen and wait in line for his evening meal, trying to cart a family with three young children to and from a soup kitchen before their bedtimes is a lot tougher, especially in a suburban landscape without a car.

When asked about where suburban clients tended to live, Tussler explained that suburban clients typically live in houses while urban clients are more likely to have shared living accommodations (like an apartment or duplex). The costs of living in a home—higher energy bills, property taxes (if the home is occupant-owned), yard maintenance, etc.— also make suburban poverty more challenging for those in the midst of it.

In the Milwaukee area, one suburb in particular stands out as having seen a strong increase in poverty over the last decade: West Allis. More than half of the schools in this first-ring suburb have students receiving free or reduced lunch (a key measurement of poverty). Tussler explained, “There’s probably a need for a homeless shelter in West Allis, but there isn’t one [there].” Instead, West Allis has cheap motels that are functioning as makeshift homes for many poor residents. This trend is also present in other Milwaukee suburbs. “A lot [of people] are living marginally,” Tussler said. “This is your last place to stay before you’re on the street.”

The public perception problem

For service agencies hoping to reach suburban residents, another problem persists: public perception. Kneebone and Berube write:

Common perceptions that the suburbs have little or no poverty can have real consequences for how regional poverty is or is not addressed… [Service] providers reported that charitable donations from suburban donors are often directed to urban areas because the donors do not realize the extent of poverty within their own or neighboring communities. (69)

That could change as the awareness of suburban poverty increases, but suburban poverty may also continue to be a hidden problem. Because of the design of suburban neighborhoods—auto-oriented, single-family homes, few public spaces—middle and high-income suburban residents may fail to see poverty that is happening around them. Their daily lives are cut off from poorer neighbors.

The transportation burden

In addition to the lack of nearby resources and donations, there’s also the problem of transportation. Whereas a low-income person in an urban area could take the bus, bike or even walk to nearby service providers, a low-income person in a suburb rarely has these options. The whole environment—from the homes to the stores to the jobs—is oriented around auto transportation.  In a Politico feature article written in 2014, Rebecca Burns, explains the situation of poverty in the Atlanta suburbs as a case study:

Cobb Community Transit operates a system that is tiny given the immense size of the county—just 20 routes compared with almost 200 operated by MARTA, the transit agency that serves the city of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties…

[That’s] by design, a political decision that came out of a time when Cobb County was trying to keep the city out [...] Back in 1971, residents of Cobb and Gwinnett counties, both heavily white at the time, voted against joining the MARTA system and rejected it again in subsequent votes, choosing to form their own internal transit systems. Only relatively recently was an agreement hashed out to allow a few buses to cross county lines, which is how the Cobb County buses are even allowed to stop now at stations in downtown and midtown Atlanta.

All of this means that in order to access urban soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and government offices—not to mention urban jobs—a suburban resident will face real challenges getting to those places. Not only that, but many social service programs require regular attendance at meetings with social workers, case managers or tutors. Tardiness or absence at meetings could cost participants their place in these sorts of programs.

Starting from scratch

The deck is stacked against suburban residents trying to make it out of poverty and the current network of nonprofit and government-based service agencies is not set up to help them. Residents of these communities who want to help their neighbors will need to step up and start forming these organizations, or building satellite campuses of existing urban organizations, in order to adequately meet the need.

Mobile service options are one way to address this growing problem. I’ve seen everything from mobile food pantries, mobile health clinics, and mobile libraries, to mobile pet spay/neuter operations. Built in buses or RVs, these outfits can come to poor neighborhoods—wherever they may crop up—and, as the need persists, perhaps set up permanent operations in those places. That’s one way of testing to find out where services are most useful. 

Ultimately, local residents, businesses, government agencies and/or nonprofits will need to step up and figure out how best to work with suburban residents living in poverty.


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