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The Big Shift

More low-income people live in suburbs

Jeff Tyler Jul 8, 2009
The Big Shift

More low-income people live in suburbs

Jeff Tyler Jul 8, 2009


Stacey Vanek-Smith: Where do most of poor people live in America? If you answered “the inner city,” you’d be wrong. Most low-income people now live in suburbs than cities. Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler reports on the changing face of poverty.

Jeff Tyler: Rising levels of unemployment have been pretty much the same in cities and suburbs.

Alan Berube is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution:

Alan Berube: That’s a change from previous recessions, where the cities seemed to take it on the chin and the suburbs avoided the worst.

He says Chicago exemplifies the national trend. When Nixon was president, about a third of Chicago’s poor lived in the suburbs. Now, it’s about half.

Forty-one-year-old Vanita Thomas is one of those people. She has an MBA and worked as an accountant, until she was hospitalized for a serious illness. After that, she managed to find a few temp jobs until the economy went cold.

Vanita Thomas: Nobody was hiring. You couldn’t find a temp assignment. Everything went dead.

She went on unemployment, but that only lasted until the fall.

Thomas: September, my unemployment’s running out. And basically, my landlord, he’s saying, “You’re a nice tenant, but Ms. Thomas if you can’t afford the rent, I have to put you out.”

A friend from her church let Thomas stay with her in the suburbs. When she still didn’t have money for rent last January, Thomas had to move into a local shelter.

Thomas: That day was like my ground zero, because that’s when the reality really hit me that I was homeless.

She lived dormitory-style with roommates. Thomas was grateful to have a roof over her head, but angry about her circumstances.

Thomas: Years back, they told you, go to school and get an education so you can get a good job, so you would never have to worry about being in a situation like that. I kept saying, “How can this happen to me?”

Some of the increased poverty in the suburbs has happened gradually. Immigrants who traditionally settled in inner cities are increasingly moving directly to suburbs. That’s where the jobs are, or were.

Again, Alan Berube with Brookings:

Berube: This recession is going to perhaps accelerate the long-term trend toward the suburbanization of poverty.

Some of the suburban poor will bounce back. Vanita Thomas got a job with a call center. She earns less than she did as an accountant, but it’s enough for an apartment. And she can set aside some money each month, aware that she’s just a couple paychecks away from being homeless.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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