A woman browsed clothing at a giveaway in San Bernardino, Calif. Today, poverty is growing faster in suburbs like this than in cities.

Photos by Emily Berl • New York Times,

Sebastian Plancarte, who lost his job in the recession, unpacked the homemade frozen treats that he sells at a customer’s apartment in his gated community in Moreno Valley, Calif.

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Hardship makes new home in the suburbs

  • Article by: JENNIFER MEDINA New York Times
  • May 9, 2014 - 8:55 PM

– The freeway exits around here are dotted with people asking for money, holding cardboard signs to tell their stories. The details vary only slightly and almost invariably include: Laid-off. Need food. Young children.

Mary Carmen Acosta often passes the silent beggars as she enters parking lots to sell homemade ice pops, known as paletas, in an effort to make enough money to get real food for her family of four. On a good day she can make $100, about double what she spends on ingredients. On a really good day, she pockets $120, the extra money offering some assurance that she will be able to pay the $800 monthly rent for her family’s three-bedroom apartment. Sometimes, she imagines what it would be like to stand on an exit ramp herself.

“Everyone here knows they might have to be like that,” Acosta, 40, said as she waited for help from a local charity in this city an hour east of Los Angeles. Both she and her husband, Sebastian Plancarte, had lost their jobs nearly three years ago. “Each time I see them I thank God for what we do have. We used to have a different kind of life, where we had nice things and did nice things. Now we just worry.”

Five decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, the nation’s poor are more likely to be found in suburbs like this one than in cities or rural areas, and poverty in suburbs is rising faster than in any other setting in the country. By 2011, there were 3 million more people living in poverty in suburbs than in inner cities, according to a study released last year by the Brookings Institution. As a result, suburbs are grappling with a shortage of institutions helping the poor and distances that make it difficult for people to get to jobs and social services even if they can find them.

In no place is that more true than California, long synonymous with the suburban good life. When taking into account the cost of living, including housing, child care and medical expenses, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, according to a measure introduced by the Census Bureau in 2011 that considers both government benefits and living costs in different parts of the country. By that measure, about 9 million people — nearly a quarter of the state’s residents — live in poverty.

Before the recession, the Inland Empire, as the suburban area east of Los Angeles is known, attracted people hoping to live out that good life. But the jobs have never really followed the people who come here looking for cheaper housing.

Unemployment in the region hovers around 10 percent and nearly one-fifth of all residents live in poverty, the highest rate among the largest U.S. metropolitan areas. By the federal measure, nearly one-third of all children here are poor. The number of poor in San Bernardino and Riverside counties nearly doubled over the past decade.

Many would-be workers lack skills or more than a basic education, making minimum-wage jobs the norm for them. Many are immigrants — some living in the United States illegally, making them ineligible for most government benefits. But like Acosta, many others came here legally decades ago and had a strong foothold in the U.S. economy — a job, a house, cars and regular travel.

“This is where poor people live now, and this is where they are going to live,” said Alan Berube, an author of the Brookings Institution study. “When poverty moved out of the inner cities it didn’t just go next door, it went 30 miles away. But at the time those families might not have been poor — they were just chasing the middle-class dream. Then, boom, that evaporated.”

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