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Inquirer Editorial: Poverty likes suburbs, too

Remember when moving to the suburbs meant you were fulfilling the American dream of a life of plenty in greener pastures?

Remember when moving to the suburbs meant you were fulfilling the American dream of a life of plenty in greener pastures?

That's less true today, with poverty showing up in communities where many Americans would least expect it. The Philadelphia suburbs, on both sides of the Delaware River, have become home to a growing segment of the region's poor.

That disturbing national trend is being seen in communities across the country. The population of poor residents in America's suburbs jumped 64 percent between 2000 and 2010, which was twice as fast as the urban rate, according to a new book recently released by the Brookings Institution.

Poverty has actually been moving into the suburbs for some time, but has been less noticeable. Experts attribute its recent growth to the recession, home foreclosures, and an influx of more lower-income immigrants.

America's cities remain home to the most pervasive poverty. In Philadelphia, the poverty rate is more than three times higher than in its suburbs. About 28 percent of Philadelphians are poor, compared with 8 percent for their suburban counterparts.

Poverty increased in each of Philadelphia's neighboring counties in both Pennsylvania and South Jersey. Camden County had the biggest change, with the poverty rate increasing by nearly 3 percentage points.

As Alan Berube, who cowrote the Brookings book with Elizabeth Kneebone, noted: The changing demographics mean "the middle class, which traditionally moved to the suburbs over the last 40 years, has nowhere left to run to anymore as poverty becomes more of a suburban phenomenon."

No one wants to believe his neighbors are poor and struggling to feed their families. Families doing fine realize just how tangible poverty is - and that it can exist even in so-called nice, suburban neighborhoods.

Because suburban poverty is less apparent than in the cities, it presents its own challenges. For example, most resources to help the poor are targeted to cities, where poverty is more concentrated.

The Brookings research found that many suburban communities lack key services and programs for the poor, and that the services they do have are strained by the demand. Limited or no access to public transportation in the suburbs makes it frustratingly difficult to not only find employment, but also to obtain services.

County government offices are the best starting point to learn what local, state, and federal resources, such as food stamps, emergency shelter, and legal services, are available, according to antihunger activists.

In some cases, assistance may be only a click away on the Internet. Pennsylvania residents can apply for state benefits at New Jerseyans can apply for benefits at

The Brookings report should serve as a wake-up call for suburban public officials to acknowledge that poverty isn't just a city problem. Local governments must have coordinated services and programs that help the poor to have a good life where they live.