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For a long time, the image of poverty in the United States was a struggling inner-city, or perhaps a down-trodden rural town. So this might be a surprise: Poverty has increased everywhere in America in recent years, but mostly in the suburbs. During the last decade, it grew twice as fast there as it did in the cities, and now more poor people live in the suburbs than in urban and rural areas.
To learn more about what this means, NPR's Pam Fessler took a tour of a suburban county outside Washington, D.C. with Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution, who's written a new book on the subject. Here's Pam's report.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: We're driving right now through an area that looks incredibly well off.
We begin our tour of Montgomery County, Maryland in a place called Bethesda. Streets are lined with luxury apartments, big homes, crowded restaurants. But Elizabeth Kneebone of Brookings says that's deceiving.
ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, but it also has a rapidly growing poor population.
FESSLER: She says since the recession, poverty here has grown by two-thirds. That means 30,000 more residents living below the federal poverty line, about $23,000 for a family of four, which doesn't get you very much around here. Kneebone says suburban poverty has grown all across the U.S. More than 16 million poor people now live in the nation's suburbs, in low-income and working-class neighborhoods.
KNEEBONE: But it's also occurring in places we think of as more affluent. And, in fact, it may be even more hidden there, because we don't expect to find poverty in those communities.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello.
KNEEBONE: Hi. How are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good. Welcome.
KNEEBONE: Thank you.
FESSLER: Our first stop is a place in this county where poverty is no surprise. Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, not far from Bethesda, about two dozen people are lined up for food.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Grab one item from here, and then get whatever bread you can use.
FESSLER: Standing with the help of a cane, 64-year-old Polly Maxwell checks out the box she's been given today.
POLLY MAXWELL: Oh, that's great. I've got - this is ice milk. That's good, the cookies I can give to my grandson. And fruit, I love. That's the only thing I can see right now. And chicken, oh, my God. Yeah. Chicken...
FESSLER: Maxwell says she started coming here a couple of years ago. After working 38 years at a local hospital, mostly in medical records, she now lives on disability checks, and she says things have gotten way too expensive. She spends half of her income on an $800-a-month rent.
MAXWELL: What you were making in two weeks when I was working, that's what I make a month. I mean, it's hard. And I just never thought it would be like this. So, it's really - you have to get used to not - you know, some of your money lasts a month, sometimes it doesn't.
FESSLER: And she's hardly alone. This center, like food pantries across the country, has seen its caseload double since the recession. Back in the care, Elizabeth Kneebone says Montgomery County is fairly typical. Suburban poverty has grown nationally because low-income families moved from cities, or other countries, in search of better schools, affordable housing and jobs. But she says it's also about people like Polly Maxwell, long-time suburbanites who have gotten poorer.
KNEEBONE: And the Great Recession was particularly severe: widespread job losses, many of them concentrated in suburban communities hit hard by the collapse of the housing market and the loss of construction jobs and related services.
FESSLER: And even though jobs are coming back to the suburbs, many pay too little to make ends meet. Kneebone says even social services and charities have been slow to recognize the shift. Most of their resources still go to the nation's cities, where there's a long history of serving the poor, which brings us to our next stop.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah. You're in, so just have a seat, and then one of the nurses will be right with you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All righty. Thank you.
FESSLER: About a dozen women, most with young children, sit in a waiting room at Mary's Center, located in Silver Spring, an area where many immigrants live. Mary's Center has provided medical and other help to the poor for 25 years. But until recently, all of its facilities were in Washington, D.C., until this suburban site opened in 2008. Zulma Aparicio is site director.
ZULMA APARICIO: We were figuring out that when we were over there at the other sites that we have in D.C., there was a lot of population from Maryland who were traveling from here to there, and they were, you know, paying fares for the bus, metro and all of this. And now, I mean, they continue paying, but it's closer.
FESSLER: Elizabeth Kneebone says for the suburban poor, that's a big issue: transportation. Everything is so spread out, it can be hard to get where you need to go, especially if you don't own a car. And that takes us to our third stop. We drive back to Gaithersburg, near the center of the county. It was farmland a few decades ago. Now it's filled with townhouses where many low-income families live. But Kneebone points out that some of the countryside remains.
KNEEBONE: As soon as you get off the main road, you're now without sidewalks. So how do people walk to a bus stop that might be nearby, let alone a job or a school?
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR OPENING)
FESSLER: We arrive at what looks like a typical office park, but instead of businesses, it's filled with nonprofits and social service agencies.
PEARLINE TYSON: My name is Pearline Tyson, and I'm the program manager for the Neighborhood Opportunity Network for Montgomery County.
FESSLER: She manages what amounts to a one-stop shop for struggling families who live nearby. Tyson says the county's trying to address the growth in poverty. It recently opened three of these centers in neighborhoods it knew had been especially hard-hit by the recession.
TYSON: And they knew that some people would be intimidated by going to a regional center to apply for benefits, especially people who had never received benefits before, or were not, you know, familiar with government services.
FESSLER: Here, everything's accessible. People who come are assigned a county worker to help navigate what can be a labyrinth of benefit programs and charitable services. For Akouavi Davi and her husband, who came here from West Africa, it's been a godsend.
AKOUAVI DAVI: I'm so happy, because I know I have somebody who to help me now.
FESSLER: They had been getting by on their own until a back injury forced Davi to give up her job at Wal-Mart. Then their daughter left her four-year-old son, Joshua, in their care. Now, only her husband works, as a security guard.
DAVI: We have electricity problem. We have apartment problem. I have a health problem. I don't have insurance.
FESSLER: And to complicate matters, she doesn't drive, which is one reason this family moved last month from a neighborhood further out, where there are no buses, to a place near the center, where there are lots of buses. Kneebone says when you're poor, geography matters. Low-income residents can spend long hours trying to get services, time that might be better spent working, or going to school. She says at least this county is trying to adjust. Many have yet to do so.
KNEEBONE: We're still thinking about poverty where it was in 1964, when President Johnson launched the War on Poverty. We think about it as a very urban phenomenon, or a rural challenge, and the reality on the ground today is just very different.
FESSLER: A reality, she says, that's unlikely to change if people don't know that it's there. Pam Fessler, NPR News.