According to the census bureau, for the first time, more poor Americans live in the suburbs than in cities.
Today on Morning Edition, reporter Rachel Jones interviewed a poor woman in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, who was having trouble getting ahead because of problems with her "new" car, which a friend sold to her for $75. Public transportation was nearly non-existent between her suburb and downtown Des Moines, where she could access social services. Like most suburbs, her home and her job were miles apart, which no sidewalks for walking and no local bus service. And the $75 car had already cost her more than $800 for insurance and registration, which she really couldn't afford.According to Jones, poor individuals are not the only ones struggling to deal with this new demographic. The suburban town and city governments are struggling to come up with the services their "new" constituents need. And though many of us have extensive networks of friends, family and resources that we can rely on in hard times, this is not true for everyone. A lot of Americans are just a divorce, hospitalization, or job loss away from really hard times. And many of those people now live in the suburbs.
As I just said in the comments to my previous post, when I was researching my suburbs book, I came across the statistic that 46% of people living below the poverty line live in the suburbs. And that figure is a few years old, so it doesn't surprise me that it's higher now. (I looked around the Census Bureau's site to see if I could find the report or news release about suburban poverty now being higher than urban poverty, but I couldn't find it offhand. Update: see here.) As Bob Lupton said in his book Renewing the City, "Poverty is suburbanizing."
Compounding the problem of poverty in the suburbs is the dynamic of the hiddenness of poverty in the suburbs - all the surrounding wealth and affluence masks the socioeconomic realities. It's in each local suburb's commercial interest to hide or minimize any poverty issues, since it's bad for business and new investment. But as new suburbs become new cities, old suburbs become old cities, with all the same challenges of infrastructure and poverty, compounded by the spread-out commuter culture.
There's nothing new under the sun. The biblical call to care for the orphan and widow, the poor and oppressed, the alien and the stranger certainly still applies to the modern suburban context. I live in the western suburbs of Chicago, and the county I live in, DuPage County, ranks as one of the most affluent in the country. But it also has a significant homeless population, many of whom are not immediately visible. I'm encouraged by organizations like DuPage PADS, which enlists an extensive network of churches and volunteers to provide shelter and meals. It's a great example of how the nonprofit sector and local churches can partner to minister to a community and seek the welfare of the suburbs.
And one more additional thought - this NPR article was yet another reminder of how car-dependent suburbia is, and as a corollary, how practical and essential car-based ministries can be for suburban churches. My wife and I have donated two of our previous cars to Willow Creek's cars ministry, which restores them and makes them available to single moms and others in need of transportation.