Bastions of the middle class, Twin Cities suburbs are seeing financial pain spreading quietly among their residents. They now have more poor people than the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Job losses, foreclosures and disappearing insurance coverage have pushed requests for food stamps, medical assistance and emergency housing aid to record levels. Homeless numbers are rising. Food shelves are scrambling to meet demand.
It's a trend mirrored in suburbs across the nation, where a recent study found that suburban poverty has grown five times faster than it has in big cities.
Worst hit are single moms and unskilled workers whose finances were shaky before the economy dipped. But financial stress reaches well into the middle class.
"These are really the new poor,'' said Edna Hoium, Anoka County's income maintenance director. "They're shocked to find out how little they have to have to qualify for benefits."
"The stories are very quiet,'' said Cathy Maes, executive director of ICA, a Minnetonka food shelf that opened a satellite in Hopkins to meet new demand. "There's a lot of pride."
They are hard-working people like Claudia Morris, 34, of Hopkins. The divorced mother of two has a college degree and a $21-per-hour job as a Costco supervisor. She had always provided for her kids on her own. Then last summer her car was hit by a driver who ran a red light. Hospital scans after the accident revealed a growth in Morris' neck: thyroid cancer.
An operation and radiation treatments followed. But health insurance didn't cover all of the costs. She struggled with fatigue as doctors tried to balance her medications. Unable to work full time, Morris moved her family from a Minnetonka apartment to a cheaper house that she rents in Hopkins.
Bills stacked up. She emptied her savings and borrowed from relatives, "even my grandpa." In desperation last fall, she went downtown to apply for food stamps. She wasn't poor enough to qualify.
"I worked so hard for the little I had," Morris said, eyes brimming with tears. "You swallow your pride and ask for help, and they say, 'No.'...
"I never thought something like this would happen to me."
Deepening pockets of poverty
The suburban pain is widespread and intensifying:
• From 2008 to 2009, food stamp use in Hennepin County grew fastest among residents who live farthest from Minneapolis. It increased 30 percent in the city but 38 percent in suburbs such as Bloomington and Eden Prairie, and 52 percent in the area that includes Independence, Mound and Wayzata. In Dakota County, food stamp use rose 44 percent from 2007 to 2009. In Washington County, it jumped 41 percent between 2008 and 2009.
• Free and reduced school lunches increased almost 40 percent in suburbs between 2005 and 2010 while remaining stable in St. Paul and dropping in Minneapolis, where enrollment declined. Over 10 years, the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches nearly doubled in Anoka-Hennepin and more than doubled in districts such as Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Prior Lake, Shakopee and Wayzata.
• Anoka County's homeless count in January showed a 40 percent jump in homeless households in one year.
• Second Harvest Heartland found that from 2008 to 2009, food shelf use by adults rose 33 percent in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, and by 57 percent in the five surrounding counties. The state's largest food shelf is now in Bloomington, where VEAP has expanded hours and serves nearly 7,000 visitors each month.
• In fast-growing Chaska, Chanhassen, Victoria and Carver, 19 churches in a group called Love INC have tried to fill a gap in services by dividing up everything from the need for diapers, blankets and food to coaching people on job searches and helping with car repairs. Last year, almost 8,400 needs were met.
"This is a pretty affluent community, but within that community are deep pockets of poverty," said Doug Peterson, executive director. "More and more are middle class people. They lost their job, they thought they were doing fine, but suddenly they're in real need. They never had to ask for help before."
A Brookings Institution study released this year found that between 2000 and 2008, the balance of Twin Cities poor tipped from central cities to suburbs. Study author Elizabeth Kneebone said far-flung suburbs were especially reliant on jobs that thrived during economic expansion, such as construction and real estate, and may have suffered the most when the economy tanked.
Need in the northwest metro
Hennepin County is setting up six human services hubs in suburbs around the county to meet expanding demand for food stamps and other financial aid. The demand is greatest in northwestern suburbs with concentrations of high-density housing and new homes, said Rex Holzemer, area director in administrative and community services.
"People went out to get low land prices and new houses," he said. "Frankly, they were living on the edge on two incomes. When suddenly somebody loses a job, they're in trouble."
Northwest of Minneapolis, the Community Emergency Assistance Program (CEAP) offers housing assistance, operates food shelves in Brooklyn Park and Blaine, and just opened a third in Maple Grove. President Byron Laher said that last year, the group distributed 100 tons more in food than it did in 2008.
The food shelf allows one visit a month, giving families food for three to five days. In some cases those families have grown as adult children moved back in with parents.
"It's a scary situation," Laher said. "We don't provide enough food for families to live on. It's just a constant struggle."
$10 an hour beats nothing
In Anoka County, where food stamp use increased 30 percent last year and people are staying on county assistance longer, Hoium said people who lost good-paying blue-collar jobs find it hard to lower their sights as they look for new positions. Counselors tell people who lost jobs that paid upwards of $30 an hour that one that pays $10 an hour is better than nothing.
"It's very much a cultural adjustment," she said.
In Washington County, job searches that used to last a year now reach 18 months, said Robert Crawford, division manager at the county's Workforce Center in Woodbury. At a recent "boot camp" run by the center, people studying résumés and how to market themselves included ex-employees of Northwest Airlines and a 66-year-old woman who found she needed to find work in retirement.
Greg Hansen, a 57-year-old engineer who last year traveled the world for 3M, was laid off in September. He had given up a longtime job just two years before to join the bigger company. Shortly after 3M cut his job, his wife had her work hours cut. Two grandchildren live with them in Oakdale.
Hansen is now fixing cars at home and shuttling his grandkids around. He turned down a job that would have paid 40 percent less than what he made at 3M in the hope that he will get a better offer.
"I have been advised that I should have taken it and that it was foolish to turn it down," he said. "I didn't want to start a job and then leave for a new one."
From food shelf giver to user
Things are improving for Morris, who is working more hours. For months she and her kids lived on bread, milk and eggs. She made a game of "eating breakfast at night." This winter, when a co-worker asked how she was doing, she broke down in tears and shared her plight.
The friend told her about the ICA food shelf. Morris visited and passed income guidelines. On her first visit, she received toiletries, cereal, meat, fruit and salad. Cantaloupe, apples and pears were the prizes of a second visit. She and the kids celebrated, eating big sandwiches with the fruit. "I thought it was Christmas again," she said. ICA also helped her secure aid so she could pay delinquent utility bills.
Later, Morris realized that before her life fell apart last year, she'd given money to ICA through her church. The giver had become the one in need.
"There are no words to describe what they did for me," she said. "There is a light at the end of the tunnel."
David Peterson contributed to this report. Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380