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Suburban Utah sees huge spike in poverty

Published May 20, 2013 6:28 am

Book • From 2000-11, number of U.S. poor in suburbs rose 64%, with Utah among hardest hit.
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Half a century ago, those who could moved to the suburbs to escape concentrated poverty in America's urban cores. But a new book released today shows that between 2000 to 2011, the rise in suburban poverty rose 64 percent, more than twice the growth rate of poverty in cities.

By 2011, almost 16.4 million suburban residents nationwide lived below the federal poverty level — now surpassing the number of impoverished city dwellers by 3 million, according to Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, which was written by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Program.

Surprisingly, the suburban areas of three Utah cities ranked among the book's top 15 in terms of fastest-growing poverty: Salt Lake City came in third with a 142 percent jump, the Provo-Orem area ranked eighth with a 129 percent increase and Ogden-Clearfield came in 14th with a bump of 105 percent.

"Poverty is touching more people and places than before," Kneebone said in a recent statement, "challenging outdated notions of where poverty is and who it affects."

However, Berube and Kneebone see this rapid growth in suburban poverty as more than a temporary change caused by the recent recession. They attribute the rise to shifts in jobs and wages, population growth and immigration, collapse of the housing market and the foreclosure crisis.

"As jobs moved into suburbs — particularly low-paying jobs in sectors like retail and hospitality — poverty did too," the book states. "And job losses triggered by the Great Recession in industries like construction, manufacturing and retail hit hardest in suburban communities and contributed to rising suburban unemployment and poverty."

The authors also believe that old remedies used to target inner-city poverty need a makeover to address the dispersed nature and size of suburban poverty.

"We cannot risk recreating the same problems of entrenched concentrated poverty in suburbs that we have battled for decades to reverse in cities," said Berube, deputy director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. "The suburbanization of poverty is a wake-up call … and a new chance to get this right."

While poverty is uncomfortable in any location, suburban poverty is exacerbated by the lack of public transit options and a spottier safety net. Outdated understanding also can translate into lack of political will, the book notes.

Confronting Suburban Poverty in America recommends taking 5 percent of the $82 billion that the federal government spends each year on antipoverty programs to create a competitive grant program that states could tap to improve opportunities for housing, education, transportation and jobs.

"In this time of constrained resources, we need to leverage every dollar in more effective ways," Kneebone said, "to increase access to economic opportunity for low-income residents wherever they live."

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

Twitter: @catmck