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Poverty has taken root in suburbs

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By Rachel Weaver and Jill King Greenwood,
Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011
 

Five years ago, Deidra and David Vaughn were proud, new owners of a $119,000 two-story, five-bedroom Shaler home, complete with a swimming pool.

He made about $30,000 as a social worker for nonprofits, and she collected Social Security medical disability benefits. They weren't rich, but with three children at home, they got by -- until he lost his job not long after they became homeowners.

As David Vaughn, 38, tried for years to find work in his field, the family struggled to save their home from foreclosure. They finally found a buyer for it in September. Now, they rent from her sister.

"We're looking to see how we can get things back to normal," Deidra Vaughn, 31, said last week as she stocked up on groceries at the North Hills Community Outreach food pantry. "I'd like to see my husband back in his field, hopefully, when the economy gets better. Every day is a struggle."

Poverty -- which federal guidelines define as having income of $26,170 or less annually for a family of five -- once was widely associated with inner-city communities, but during the nation's economic downturn, it infiltrated more middle-class neighborhoods. A Brookings Institution analysis of census data showed that from 2000 to 2010, the number of poor individuals in suburbs grew 53 percent, compared with 23 percent in cities.

In Western Pennsylvania, Beaver, Lawrence and Fayette counties experienced the highest increases in poverty rates, census data show.

"The face of poverty is changing," said Lorna Andrew-Jaja, board member of North Hills Community Outreach, which provides social services such as food distribution and help with utilities. "You see people in four-bedroom houses and don't know they are unemployed. It's changed the clientele."

Alexandra Murphy has been living in Penn Hills for the past three years studying the suburban poor for a doctorate in sociology from Princeton University. She said the working class, which was "on the brink of making ends meet" before the recession, found itself what she termed "poor in place," and needing access to food banks and help with bills just like the traditional poor in the cities.

Murphy said the difference between urban poverty and suburban poverty is that the latter "doesn't have the infrastructure in place to meet the needs."

"For this group, they often make too much money to qualify for federal entitlements, but not enough to keep their homes or electricity. This group of the suburban poor is different, qualitatively, from those who have been struggling with poverty for quite some time," she said.

Increased demand

Suburban organizations that provide assistance with food, rent and utilities and financial guidance are working to meet a demand once predominantly associated with urban areas.

Jim Guffey, executive director of South Hills Interfaith Ministry, which serves people facing financial troubles, knows certain communities seem immune to poverty. Yet, the number of people living within the middle- to upper-class school districts of Baldwin-Whitehall, Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon, Keystone Oaks, Upper St. Clair and South Park whom the ministry serves each month has more than doubled to 1,051 during the past four years. At least 6,000 households in those districts are living at or below the poverty level, he said.

"They normally are not communities people associate with poverty," Guffey said.

Overall, people in those districts saw an average hit of $3,188 to median household income from 2000 to 2009, from $66,348 to $63,160, as people lost jobs or had their wages cut.

"It's pretty much a given that people who used to be middle class are slipping further down," said Marlene Kozak, CEO of Westmoreland County Food Bank, who attributed an increase in first-time users to the decline of a stable middle class. More than 7,000 households a month use the food bank now, up from about 6,500 two years ago, she said.

North Hills Community Outreach, which serves 50 municipalities in northern Allegheny County, also saw a spike in people using their services in the past year. In 2010-11, the organization helped 5,753 families -- up 838 from the previous year. The prior year saw a jump of 307.

"The economic crisis affects workers and business owners in the suburbs. Eventually, everything reaches upper management," said Fay Morgan, executive director.

The Rev. Ken Love started Alpha Ministries -- a referral organization that can help people seeking assistance with anything from rent and utilities to food -- out of Kerr Presbyterian Church in Penn Hills last year after seeing an increase in people relying on social services in his community. The ministry operates with a budget from the church of about $5,000.

"I see over the next three or four years there will be lots of clients to help out there," he said. "The customer base is growing daily."

More than 500 households a month use the Rainbow Kitchen food pantry in Munhall, double the clients from four years ago. Its service area of Homestead, West Homestead, Munhall, Whitaker and West Mifflin experienced an average 2.2-percent decrease in employment -- defined as those in the labor force with jobs or actively looking -- in the past decade.

Donna Little, Rainbow Kitchen executive director, attributes the increase to "people who never thought they'd ever be coming for food assistance."

"It's people who pretty much, as long as nothing changes, are fine, but then they lose their job, get sick, go through a divorce," she said.

Amy Ober, 41, of Shaler has relied on the North Hills Community Outreach pantry since just before she lost her husband, Paul, to cancer two years ago. Paul Ober owned a lawn service business, which was struggling prior to his death. Without the business, the family's income plummeted, and Amy Ober took a job as a bartender to help support her four children.

She is not sure where they will stay after their home is sold at a sheriff's sale scheduled for next month. "You've got to keep going," Ober said. "Eventually, it will get better."

No help from above

The jump in suburban poverty comes at a time service providers are feeling state and federal budget cuts.

The Westmoreland County Food Bank has lost significant federal funding, Kozak said. Money from the federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program dropped from $103,000 in 2010 to $8,300 in 2011. The federal Human Services Development grant that once supported volunteer programs at the pantry decreased over the past five years from more than $100,000 to under $30,000.

Transportation can be a roadblock for the suburban poor because service providers may be spread over a large area, Guffey said.

"In East Liberty, you can throw a stone, and there's a good chance you'll hit a nonprofit. In the suburban setting, you need a car," he said.

In Western Pennsylvania, the increase of suburban poverty is not because poor people are moving into those areas. Instead, people living in the suburbs are becoming poor. Chris Briem, of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social & Urban Research, said local areas with high rates of poverty are "not necessarily places that are poor because of out-migration from the city."

"These are places that were poor or becoming poor for a long time now," he said.

Low-income areas such as Wilkinsburg, Penn Hills and the 12 communities in the Woodland Hills School District have become poorer over the past decade, Briem said. Some of that might be because people who were low-income moved from the city to escape violence and bad schools, but found the same problems appearing in their new neighborhoods.

Mike Irwin, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Duquesne University, said that kind of a shift can result in "social disorganization" in some communities, which can lead to increased crime. The deterioration some communities have experienced over the past few decades could soon occur in more places, he said.

"As you lose population and taxes, the school system becomes threatened," he said. "The ability to attract new families erodes, and it creates a downward spiral."

 

 
 


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