Sunday, July 08, 2012

suburbs: everyday I'm struggalin, everyday I'm struggalin

NYTimes | Hardship has built a stronghold in the American suburbs. Whatever image they had as places of affluence and stability was badly shaken last year, when reports analyzing the 2010 census made it clear that the suburbs were getting poorer.

While the overall suburban population grew slightly during the previous decade, the number of people living below the poverty line in the suburbs grew by 66 percent, compared with 47 percent in cities. The trend quickened when the Great Recession hit, as home foreclosures and unemployment surged. In 2010, 18.9 million suburban Americans were living below the poverty line, up from 11.3 million in 2000.

It is possible to see this struggle just beyond New York City in a quintessentially suburban place, Long Island. There have long been pockets of poverty there, created by race and income segregation. But it is not just in pockets anymore. These days the struggle has metastasized: foreclosed homes are just as empty in the better-off subdivisions, with the same weed-choked yards, plywood windows and mold-streaked clapboard siding.

Long Island’s two counties, Nassau and Suffolk, have the second- and third-highest foreclosure rates in New York State, behind Queens. Debt counselors across the island juggle a mix of clients: immigrant families undone by predatory lenders and middle-class professionals impoverished by illness, layoffs or credit-card bills. Families who once donated food now wait in line to receive it at pantries that empty out week after week. Homeless women with children move in with relatives or into motels, the government-paid shelters of last resort.

The deepening of suburban poverty is putting new strains on government agencies, parish outreach programs and other institutions in the suburbs’ gauzy safety net. At the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, which handles programs like food stamps, Medicaid, emergency housing and cash assistance, needs have increased across the board.

The number of food stamp cases reached 40,699 in April, compared with 26,193 two years ago. Almost 195,000 people in a county of 1.54 million are on Medicaid. More people are asking for help to cover emergency bills for rent or heat; more than 10,500 did so in the first quarter of 2012, an 8 percent increase over 2010. The county’s emergency-housing caseload hit a 10-year peak in January, with 488 families and 261 individuals living in shelters and motels.

But the Social Services Department has not been able to stay ahead of demand. It has been under a court order since 2009 to shorten egregious delays in processing applications for food stamps and Medicaid. The average wait for Medicaid applicants fell to 29 days last year from 83 days in 2007, but that is still bad. One of the groups that brought the lawsuit, the Empire Justice Center, is planning to go back to court to force the county to meet its obligations.

These services apply primarily to the poorest Long Islanders, many of whom earn less than the federal poverty line ($22,113 for a family of four) and qualify for government aid. Those above that income level often don’t qualify. About 468,000 people in Suffolk and Nassau, out of a total population of about 2.7 million, live in households earning up to 200 percent of the poverty line, or about $45,000 a year for a family of four. They are barely scraping by, but are often ineligible for programs like food stamps and subsidized housing and child care because their incomes are too high.

In May and June, a commission set up by the Suffolk Legislature held hearings on poverty. County and nonprofit officials warned of problems on multiple fronts — of hundreds of working parents losing subsidized child care, for example; of low-paid social-service employees buried under growing caseloads while heading toward the brink of poverty themselves.

This month, the county announced that because of reduced state aid, it was tightening day-care eligibility rules for the third time in six months. Up to 1,200 families may be losing child care in summer, the worst possible time.

The suburbs were not designed for the poor. And even now, local governments are not equipped to see, much less answer, a lot of their needs.


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