Poverty moves fast to suburbs

From Butts County in the south to Dawson up north, Walton in the east to Haralson out west, the number of poor people grew exponentially faster the past decade in the suburbs than in metro Atlanta itself.

In 2000, for example, 76 percent of the Atlanta region’s poor lived in the suburbs. In 2008, 85 percent did. Only five U.S. suburbs notched a greater rise in their percentage of poor people during that time period, according to a myth-busting report by a Washington think tank.

And all that happened before the recession tore a hole in metro Atlanta’s civic fabric, with layoffs and foreclosures sundering once-stable communities.

More than half a million people in Atlanta’s suburbs now live below the poverty line. Put another way, one of every eight suburbanites is poor.

Poverty, of course, isn’t new. Atlanta and its near-in suburbs‚ Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Clayton‚ have dealt with the financial scourge for years.

What’s different, according to the study by the Brookings Institution, is the speed with which poverty has spread across the 28-county Atlanta metropolitan area. And it’s everywhere.

In Canton, 30 miles from downtown Atlanta, white-collar Joes compete with teenagers for jobs stacking shelves at the grocery store.

In Marietta, near the Square, a Hispanic preacher counts dozens of unemployed construction workers.

In Buford, hidden behind the antebellum mansions along Main Street, 25 boxes of donated bread are picked clean within the hour at the food pantry.

“It seems like there’s a new crowd here every time I come,” Marcus Miller, 32 and unemployed, said after filling a grocery bag Wednesday at the North Gwinnett Co-Op. “There’s diversity in these faces; they’re not any specific race. It doesn’t matter if you speak English or not. They’re all here. The elderly. The young. It doesn’t matter who you are.”

Poverty’s rush to the suburbs portends far-reaching social, political and economic consequences.

Yet, while the suburbs suffer, Atlanta stabilizes: its poverty rate remained the same between 2000 and 2008‚ compared to a 25 percent increase in suburban poverty, according to the Brookings report released earlier this month.

Shift sped up in this decade

Buford’s hard-up began lining up outside the co-op’s food pantry 45 minutes before the doors opened last Monday evening. White, black, Hispanic‚ the crowd represented an equal-opportunity tableau of hurt.

Within the hour, 25 bags of bread, cakes and cookies were gone.

Sixty-three families partook of the baked goods, then made their way to the food pantry for free pasta, peanut butter and rice, or to the thrift store for 50- cent shirts and $1 shoes.

“I came here today to get some help with my prescriptions,” said Bobbie Johnston, 77, who got $40 for the blood pressure medicine her Medicare check can’t cover. “This place is a godsend.”

Six years ago, the church-sponsored co-op that serves Buford, Spring Hill and Suwanee helped 7,500 families with food, clothing, medicine or utilities. Last year, it helped 16,300.

“We used to just see people living at or below the poverty line,” said Maureen Kornowa, the co-op’s executive director. “Now we’re seeing victims of the economy, people who had mortgages, 401(k)s, people who were living the quote-unquote American dream. We’re seeing the people who used to write us checks.”

The federal government defines poverty for a family of four as income of $21,834 or less a year. Forty million Americans fit that bill.

By 2005, according to the Brookings analysis of U.S. Census data, more poor people lived in the nation’s suburbs than the cities. Since then the number of suburban poor, and their percentage of the region’s population, has skyrocketed.

Suburbs surrounding the nation’s 95 biggest cities experienced a 25 percent increase in poverty between 2000 and 2008, according to the liberal-leaning think tank, a rate almost five times faster than the rise of the urban poor. (The nation’s population increased 12.5 percent.)

The shrinking of the U.S. auto industry, and manufacturing overall, put the suburbs surrounding Detroit, Scranton and Youngstown atop the list of places where poverty is growing fastest. Atlanta’s suburbs ranked seventh.

“The share of Atlanta’s suburban poor has been rising since the ’70s, but it really accelerated in the 2000s,” said Emily Garr, who co-authored the report. “So the general perception of poor people‚ they live in the inner-city, not in families in the suburbs‚ needs to change with the reality of the suburbanization of poverty.”

Number of needy soars

Brookings’ study left off in 2008, just as the Great Recession kicked into high gear. Garr predicted that the Atlanta region’s poverty rate will have risen to 13 percent last year.

Annette Lee has the numbers to prove it. She’s the resource coordinator for MUST Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit serving Cobb and Cherokee residents since 1971.

Clients served the last fiscal year: up 26 percent.

School supplies: up 25 percent.

Toys: up 33 percent.

“That’s a really telling tale,” Lee said. “People use their money for food, rent and utilities. Toys? Well, that’s over and above what a person living below the poverty line can afford.”

The recession was preceded by a milder economic downturn in 2001. Last year, though, the bottom fell out, particularly in the housing industry. Bankers, mortgage brokers, builders, contractors and landscapers across the once-booming suburbs lost their jobs.

“After the recession hit, a lot of Mexicans were out of work or doing part-time work and trying to keep alive,” said Pastor Ariel Robles of History Makers International Ministries, a charismatic Pentecostal church in Marietta. “The majority are struggling to get by on welfare and other help from the government.”

Federal and state governments shoulder financial assistance to the unemployed, help with health care and other social services. But city and county governments, already hurt by declining revenues, struggle to provide services for an expanding poor population.

Gwinnett County, for example, cut bus service last summer, a hardship for the car-less like Buford’s Miller who can’t reach the library 10 miles away to look for jobs online. The former restaurant manager couldn’t visit the Buford-Spring Hill library on Monday anyway: It’s closed, due to budget cuts.

“Suburban poverty presents very different challenges than urban poverty,” said Brookings’ Garr. “Policy-makers need to look at more (public) transit and more access to basic social services.”

Until then, the food pantries, thrift stores and faith-based charities will try to pick up the slack. Willie Veal, 61, who moved to Buford from Chicago after losing her teaching job three years ago, visits the co-op twice monthly for food.

At first, she was ashamed to return home with the rumpled brown paper bags that all but advertised where the free food came from. Veal, instead, transferred the bread, cereal and paper towels into Kroger bags for the short walk to her apartment.

“I didn’t want my neighbors to think, ‘Oh, she’s been to the food pantry,” Veal said. “But two weeks later, some of my neighbors started coming with me.”

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