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Suburban poverty soars

May 20, 2013: 8:00 AM ET

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Poverty is growing faster in the suburbs than anywhere else in the United States, soaring 64% over the past decade.

That was more than twice the growth rate of the urban poor population, according to the Brookings Institution, which released a book Monday titled Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. There are now almost 16.4 million suburban residents living below the poverty line, nearly 3 million more than in the cities.

The poverty line for a family of four was $23,021 in 2011, the latest Census figures available.

Low-income Americans have been moving to suburbs for many years, as wealthier Americans and companies relocated there. The poor were chasing the unskilled job opportunities that cropped up to cater to these people and businesses, said Elizabeth Kneebone, who co-authored the book.

"When people think of poverty in America, they tend to think of inner city neighborhoods or isolated rural communities," Kneebone said. "But today, suburbs are home to the largest and fastest growing poor population in the country."

During the 2000s, many poor people found work in the suburbs in construction, fueled by the housing boom in the first part of the decade, and in the services sector, working in restaurants and retail shops. Also, more impoverished immigrants increasingly moved directly to the suburbs over the past decade, joining predecessors who established communities outside of cities.

The Great Recession exacerbated the suburban poverty problem, as the construction industry cratered and many businesses closed, leaving low-wage workers without jobs. Also, the downturn forced formerly middle class families down the economic ladder into poverty.

The suburbs, however, are ill-equipped to deal with this burgeoning poor population, Kneebone said. There aren't as many social services agencies and they are often spread far and wide, making it difficult for those without cars to access. Most of the $82 billion spent by the federal government to combat poverty is directed to cities.

In the book, Kneebone and her co-author, Alan Berube, argue that the federal government needs to come up with new ways to tackle the problem of poverty in suburbia, which requires different tactics than its urban counterpart. In particular, assistance must address the fragmented nature of suburban populations and assistance organizations.

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