A new home for poverty in America

It's been nearly 50 years since poverty in America was a front-burner issue on our nation's political agenda – and it's time to move it up again.

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A new home for poverty in America
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It’s been nearly 50 years since poverty in America was a front-burner issue on our nation’s political agenda – and it’s time to move it up again.

Even as those at the top of our society have grown fabulously richer in the past decade, those in the economic middle have seen incomes stagnate and fall, opportunities decline, and poverty become not about someone else, but about them. Numbers that were not even imaginable half a century ago are now our cold reality – 50 million poor people, 51 million more who are “near poor,” almost one-in-four children under five years old living in poverty, and no sign of this mass decline decelerating.

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The face of American poverty, however, has changed somewhat. In the sixties, the poor had largely been born into it and were out of most people’s sight – tucked away in backwater rural counties and isolated urban ghettos. This kind of poverty persists, but today’s big jump in numbers comes from families that have been knocked down from a middle-class life – dismayed to find themselves among the long-term unemployed, grabbing at temporary low-paying jobs, and buying meager groceries with food stamps.

These are the new poor, but they also constitute a new demographic phenomenon: The suburban poor. Once the secure base of the middle-class, suburbs have become the fastest-growing home of American poverty. Since 2000, the number of suburban poor has surged by 64 percent, twice the rate of urban poor. By 2011, America’s suburbs held three million more poor people than were in our core cities.

American poverty is no longer about “them,” but us – people in our own close circles, living where we live. To learn more about it in your area, check out a new report by the Brookings Institution, titled “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America”: www.brookings.edu.

“Poverty grows fast in suburbs,” Austin American Statesman, May 20, 2013.

“Poverty’s Lasting Ills,” The New York Times, May 14, 2013.

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