Poor population in DFW suburbs has risen 111 percent since 2000

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The poor population in Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington suburbs has risen 111 percent increase from 2000 to 2011, according to a new Brookings Institution book that shows that poverty is rapidly shifting from the nation’s inner cities to suburbia.

The poor in America’s suburbs surged 64 percent in the last decade, or more than twice the rate of the urban poor population, according to the book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, released Monday by the Washington D.C-based think tank.

“When people think of poverty in America, they tend to think of inner-city neighborhoods or isolated rural communities, but today, suburbs are home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and the lead author of the book.

“Poverty is touching more people and places than before, challenging outdated notions of where poverty is and who it affects,” she said.

There were 474,023 people living in poverty in DFW suburbs in 2011, a rise of 106,462 since 2008. Between 2000 and 2008, the number jumped by 143,118, the study shows.

The shift was even more dramatic in Austin, where the number of poor in the suburbs rose by 142 percent.

In 2010, the highest suburban poverty rates in the nation were in El Paso (36.4 percent) and McAllen (35.4). Des Moines, Iowa, had the lowest at 5.7 percent.

A big part of the issue in DFW is the rapid proliferation of the suburbs, which grew by 30.9 percent between 2000 and 2010 compared to 11.7 percent for area cities.

“The demographics of poverty are changing,” said Sonia Singleton, assistant director for Community Action Partners, an agency managed by the city of Fort Worth’s Parks and Community Department, which serves as the community action agency for Tarrant County.

“It’s everywhere. It’s people from all walks of life in all parts of the county. We try to rebuff the myth of where poverty is concentrated in the minority community. We’re seeing it across the spectrum as far as race, education and work history.

“It’s not always where you think it is,” Singleton said. “We have clients in every ZIP code.”

Kneebone and co-author Alan Berube say increases in suburban poverty are not a temporary shift brought on by the recession but the result of decades of change and growth. Suburban poverty is rising for a variety of reasons, including shifts in jobs and wages, population growth and immigration, the collapse of the housing market and the foreclosure crisis, they say.

Perception isn’t always reality when it comes to the poor population, said Randy Clinton, director of Community Enrichment Center, a faith-based nonprofit organization serving Northeast Tarrant County.

“I think a lot of people in the city think Northeast Tarrant is a rich area. There is wealth here in a couple of cities, but we have some older cities that have a lot of lower-income people,” Clinton said.

“People underemployed in the suburbs have transportation issues because there is no public transportation. They have to have a car, and that’s hard for people stuck at jobs that pay $8 or $9 an hour,” he said.

“The other side is a lot more divorce in the suburbs. A single mom is not going to make it on $10 an hour,” Clinton said.

Celia Cole, chief executive officer of the Fort Worth-based Texas Food Bank Network, said just reaching poor people in the suburbs is a challenge for aid organizations.

“Charitable agencies tend to cluster in urban areas. In Fort Worth, we need to find innovative ways to reach them through things like mobile pantries, and that’s expensive,” Cole said.

The aging of the suburban population is also shifting the poverty dynamic, Singleton said.

“We are seeing more elderly in suburban areas, and too often they suffer in silence. They are on fixed incomes, and the prices for food and gas keep going up. We can help them with things like energy assistance,” she said.

The new statistics don’t surprise William Pherigo, director of West Aid, a regional food pantry that serves southwest Tarrant County.

The 25-year-old pantry will be receiving 4,000 pounds of food today from the Tarrant Area Food Bank.

“We’re serving more now than we ever have. In the last five or six years there has been a big increase,” Pherigo said. “We’re seeing single parents in particular. And a lot of what we see more and more of are people who are working and not getting ahead.

“There’s a broad section of poor out in the suburbs,” he said.

The approaches to the problem of suburban poverty need to be overhauled, the authors say.

“We cannot risk recreating the same problems of entrenched concentrated poverty in suburbs that we have battled for decades to reverse in cities,” Berube said. “The suburbanization of poverty is a wake-up call.”

Confronting poverty

To confront “poverty in place,” the authors recommend a number of steps including:

• Improving systems and networks and promoting high-performing organizations.

• Identifying and reducing barriers to integration and collaboration.

• Committing to enterprise-level funding and developing consistent data sources.

“With millions of families struggling to make ends meet, we can’t afford to continue business as usual,” Kneebone said. “In this time of constrained resources, we need to leverage every dollar in more effective ways to increase access to economic opportunity for low-income residents wherever they live.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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