Middle-class suburbs the new poor

By David Usborne

Poverty in suburban communities near major cities grew by 53 per cent between 2000 and 2010. Photo / ThinkStock
Poverty in suburban communities near major cities grew by 53 per cent between 2000 and 2010. Photo / ThinkStock

Poverty in suburban communities near major cities grew by 53 per cent between 2000 and 2010.

The late sun is giving the oaks dotting the Cleveland Heights Country Club in Lakeland, Florida, a tangerine tinge, and all looks well with this pocket of middle-class suburbia. The houses here are not grand, but they are nice, - homes of the American Dream.

But the myth of the suburban idyll is coming apart. Ask Renee Sullivan, whose home on Glendale St this weekend stands out because of the baby cots, armchairs and other household items piled on the lawn for sale. Her husband, Rick, lost his job with a tile manufacturer in 2009, and with seven kids they are out of cash and packing up to leave.

"We have just about exhausted all of our options," Renee explained outside the house that has been home for 14 years. They are moving into a small apartment in what she calls "a poverty-stricken" neighbourhood across town. They hope to rent the house here for a little more than the mortgage payments.

"Never, ever, never," Renee, 44, says when asked if she could have imagined being in a bind like this, where she now collects food stamps to feed the family. They have been paying the mortgage with credit cards already loaded with debt. "It had to stop. We felt like the Lord was telling us, 'No more debt'."

An analysis of census data by the Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington, reveals the suburbs in the US contain more people living below the poverty line than anywhere else. Poverty in suburban communities near major cities grew by 53 per cent between 2000 and 2010, compared with 23 per cent among city dwellers.

"The growth has been stunning," notes Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of the study. "For the first time, more than half of the metropolitan poor live in suburban areas. We think of poverty as really an urban or ultra-rural phenomenon, but it's not. It's increasingly a suburban issue."

Poverty in the US "doesn't necessarily mean children starving in the streets and homeless people, although they are a small part of the poverty story", notes Shawn Fremstad of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research. "It is more about struggling, running up debts and cutting corners."

According to Brookings, Lakeland and its sister city of Winter Haven together rank number seven in the top 10 American cities with the highest suburban poverty rates. At 17.7 per cent, they are only just below Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida, with 18.6 per cent. Number one, with a 36.4 per cent suburban poverty rate, is El Paso in Texas.

If any of those top 10 have a chance of winning attention in the 2012 presidential race, it should be Lakeland. If Florida is perennially one of the most hotly contested states in election years, then this densely populated slice between Orlando and Tampa is where temperature gets closest to boiling point.

The victory of George W. Bush in Florida in 2000 rested largely on the progress he made here. Bush made even greater inroads in this part of Florida in 2004.

Shelters and soup kitchens in this part of Florida report a 30 per cent rise in demand over the past year. Almost all the increase is accounted for by people who are not destitute but are on the edge of a financial cliff.

"The first line of defence often is for them to go and stay with family, but usually that doesn't last very long," says Angelia Mosley, who runs Pinellas Hope, a Catholic Church-funded shelter in Clearwater, Florida, which houses men and women in tents.

"I never imagined this at all," says Wayne Smith, 59, who worked as a mortician as well as a cameraman in Los Angeles before moving to St Petersburg. Laid off in 2009, he left his wife and, when his savings had run out, moved in with his mother. Eventually he found himself at Pinellas Hope. "Was I part of the middle class before this? Yes. I didn't have a lavish life, but I enjoyed the money."

As for the recession, he knows who he blames. It's not Obama or the Democrats. "Bush started all this," he says.

- Independent

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