Columbia’s suburban poor on the rise, nearly doubling in a decade

jself@thestate.comMay 20, 2013 

The suburbs – once a symbol of American affluence – have the fastest growing and largest number of poor in the nation, according to a new study.

That holds true for the Columbia metropolitan area as well, according to a new study. That study found metro Columbia’s suburban poor population outpaced growth in the suburban poor nationally, climbing 90.3 percent from 2000 to 2011, compared with 64 percent nationwide, according to “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” published by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

About 81 percent of the Columbia-area’s poor residents, or 130,500 people, live in the suburbs, an increase from 74 percent, or 76,600 people, four decades ago. Nationwide, 55 percent of America’s poor live in the suburbs, compared with 46 percent in 1970.

Brookings authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube say the geography of poverty nationally changed in the last decade when, for the first time, the number of poor living in the suburbs surpassed those living in cities. Nearly 16.4 million people in U.S. suburbs were living below the poverty level in 2011, compared with 13.4 million in urban areas, the report says.

“Poverty is touching more people and places than before, challenging outdated notions of where poverty is and who it affects,” said Kneebone, a fellow at the liberal Brookings think tank.

The shift of poverty to the suburbs from urban city centers is not a temporary response to the Great Recession, the authors say. Instead, it is the result of decades of changes in jobs and wages, population growth and immigration, and more recently, the collapse of the housing market.

Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, an advocacy group for the poor, said the findings were “not totally shocking.”

“Columbia is a perfect example of sprawl,” she said, adding that as the metro population has shifted to the suburbs, more suburbanites have been impacted by higher poverty and unemployment rates.

“In the suburbs, people who are living in poverty might feel more isolated and not know how to get access to the resources and services that are out there that might help them,” she added.

The study also found in Columbia’s metro area that:

•  The suburban population grew 21 percent from 2000 to 2010, outpacing urban areas, which grew at 8.2 percent.

•  Unemployment in the suburbs nearly doubled from 2007 to 2010.

The impact of suburban poverty is widespread, said David Kunz, director of the Cooperative Ministry, a Columbia-based crisis-assistance group.

“People who have been displaced from their middle-class jobs are competing for lower waged jobs,” and there are fewer of those jobs to go around, he said.

“Poverty doesn’t just exist in some neighborhood over there,” Kunz said. “It affects the whole community.”

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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