Poor people living in the suburbs of the Twin Cities now significantly outnumber the needy in Minneapolis and St. Paul, an accelerating trend that is presenting many local governments with stark new challenges.
Pockets of concentrated poverty have emerged across the metro suburbs, in places such as St. Louis Park, Coon Rapids and Shakopee. Meanwhile, in other suburban communities such as Richfield and Brooklyn Park, poverty that sprang up over the last decade has become a persistent issue.
These are the findings of a seminal new Metropolitan Council report that says about 385,000 people live in poverty in the suburbs, compared to about 259,000 in the urban core.
Libby Starling, the Met Council’s manager of regional policy and research, called the suburban spread of poverty significant and surprising.
“In 2000, there were no pockets of concentrated poverty outside of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Fort Snelling,” she said.
Suburban and rural poverty in the seven-country metro area rose by 92 percent from 2000 to 2013, while it grew by 24 percent in the two core cities, according to the report, which relied on census data. As suburban poverty rises, so too does debate in many areas over the kinds of housing and mass transit that would better serve low-income residents. At times, that question is becoming more tense and divisive, or prompting unease about the arrival of so many poor families.
But, Starling said, “the reality is, they are here.”
Many people who were pushed out of the middle class by the hard times of the past decade haven’t made it back in.
“It’s not the typical face of poverty,” said Cathy Capone Bennett, a consultant with the nonprofit Urban Land Institute Minnesota and Regional Council of Mayors. “It’s you and me and the neighbor next door. … They may be working but not at the same level as before.”
Poverty’s shift to the suburbs also has links to the aging evident in some of those communities. “What was shiny and new 30, 40, 50 years ago is now in need of investment,” Starling said.
Some skeptics question the Met Council’s methodology and conclusions, noting that it uses a much higher income threshold than the federal government. It defines poverty for a family of four as an annual income of less than $44,093, compared to the federal government’s $23,834. Poverty is considered concentrated if 40 percent or more of households in a census tract fall below that threshold.
One former Met Council leader says the totals may reflect high concentrations of poverty in a few suburban cities, rather than across the region. “Those statistics need a deeper dive in a couple areas,” said Peter Bell, who worked under Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Bell said the flow of wealthy empty nesters into Minneapolis could be shifting averages in urban areas. He also wondered if a few poorer suburbs could be spiking the suburban poverty count. “If you took some of those out of the equation, does that distort the picture as well?” he said.
But Starling said the report is compelling. “The suburbanization of poverty is a national trend,” she said. “You can look at the data. It’s real.”
Cities, schools react
Some suburban leaders are addressing the rise in poverty head-on, while others are still examining the numbers.
Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik led a discussion on suburban poverty at the spring meeting of suburban mayors from across the metro area. She said that her work with the Maplewood City Council to bring bus rapid transit to the city and to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing is about connecting people to jobs and serving residents at all income levels.
“A good-paying job is the quickest way to confront poverty,” Slawik said. “I really get concerned when people start talking about ‘those people.’ ”
Coon Rapids Mayor Jerry Koch, a real estate agent, said he’s not surprised by the new numbers but cautions against overemphasizing them.
“Maybe it’s the direction we are trending right now, but I don’t think it’s a big spike, and we will recover,” he said.
Koch said his city is reinvesting in housing, redoing its parks and now has the Northstar Commuter Rail connecting it to downtown Minneapolis. “We are trying to attract families here, whatever their makeup,” Koch said. “We are building up a nice infrastructure for everyone.”
Leaders of Anoka-Hennepin Schools, the state’s largest school district with 40,000 suburban students, say they see firsthand the rise of suburban poverty.
The number of children taking free or reduced-price lunches during the school year has nearly doubled in a decade, from 19 to 36 percent of the district’s student population. In recent years, Coon Rapids Middle School opened the “Falcon Nest,” which provides food, school supplies and personal hygiene products to needy students.
“You have so many people right on the cusp out here,” said Noah Atlas, director of the district’s nutrition program.
Working, but needy
Anoka resident Tara Nordgren, 29, moved to an apartment there because the $600-a-month rent is lower than rent in the central cities. She’s originally from Fridley, and many of her family members live in the north metro.
Last Thursday, she walked through her neighborhood to the Anoka County Brotherhood Council food shelf, pushing her 2-year-old son Allan in a stroller with one hand and pulling an empty red wagon with the other.
Nordgren has worked a variety of jobs, including retail, fast food and as a personal care attendant. She now works at Burger King while her mother cares for her son. She doesn’t have a car. To get to work or run errands, she takes the bus or walks. Even so, she still struggles to pay bills and is grateful for the free groceries — especially the fresh produce — she receives once a month at the food shelf.
“He loves the fruit and veggies,” Nordgren said of her son.
She hopes to one day buy a manufactured home. “I am saving so we can have a place of our own,” she said.
Jerri Loughry, manager of the food shelf, said demand continues to grow regardless of the improving economy. “We’ve had a 12 percent increase in the number of families we serve compared to last year,” she said last week. “It’s still growing.”
“I find that surprising,” she added. “I anticipated at some point we would level off. … We have an awful lot of people out in the suburbs still struggling.”