Inver Hills Community College nestles into leafy valleys near some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in suburban Dakota County. But every Wednesday at noon, students like Christine Monroe and Muhammad Rashad quietly slip into the back of a truck to pick up bags of free groceries so they won’t miss a meal.
“The largest minority on this campus is the poor,” said Prof. Tom Reis, who for years has given food to hungry students. “They’re invisible, because there’s a stigma: No one wants to raise his hand and say ‘I’m poor.’ ”
The Brookings Institution on Monday released a study ranking the Twin Cities area among the nation’s top 10 major metropolitan areas for the speed at which suburban poverty is rising. Its analysis says the number of suburban Minnesotans living in poverty more than doubled between 2000 and 2011.
Although it won’t be part of the public release, analysts at the Washington, D.C., think tank say Shakopee and Apple Valley head the list of outer-ring suburbs seeing sharp rises in poverty numbers. Both places permitted wave upon wave of townhouse construction during the housing boom — nearly 2,000 units between the two of them from 2000 to 2005, according to the Metropolitan Council.
“The landscape of poverty has changed dramatically in the past decade, and public perceptions haven’t kept up,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.
At Inver Hills, the Mobile Pantry springs from an assessment last November showing that 40 percent of its students identify themselves as in need of food assistance, with another 17 percent saying they’re not in need but have been in the past, spokeswoman Helen Ebert said.
The same story is repeated elsewhere. In far wealthier Scott County, a relatively new effort to link people facing sudden crises with those willing to help — to donate a brake job so someone can get to work, for instance — has doubled in numbers this year.
“This year, we’ve already assisted 78 families,” said Beth Loechler, executive director of the FISH program. “Our number last year at this time was 36.”
In affluent Plymouth, a nonprofit less than two years ago opened a 3,300-square-foot store at its new headquarters to raise money and serve rising needs. Local residents donate used goods, and hundreds volunteer as staff.
People offering services speak of startling turnouts. On Mother’s Day weekend, cars lined up for two blocks when a Lakeville church, Spirit of Joy, offered free oil changes to single moms. Hundreds assemble on Saturdays when a Burnsville church distributes food.
“We’re less than a mile from where the city spent millions creating an upscale new downtown,” said Mark Fagerwick, spokesman for Vineyard Community Services, which runs the food shelf. “Less than a mile from that spot, 300 people will line up for bread and staples to get them through the week.”
Bust after the boom?
Paul Mattessich, executive director of Wilder Research, a St. Paul nonprofit that tracks the same trends locally, agrees there’s an issue with suburbs. He finds the late decade jump there — contributing to a doubling in suburban poor from 95,000 in 2000 to 205,000 in 2011 — to be nothing less than “astounding.”
He notes, though, that our suburban poverty rate is still fairly low compared to suburbs across America, and well under that of the central cities. “The suburbs have big numbers, but lots of people live in our suburbs,” he said.
During the past decade, the poverty rate in both central cities rose from about 16 percent to about 23 percent. The suburban rate was about 8 percent.
Brookings, a leading source of analysis of urban trends, stresses that the large suburban numbers are important to notice, and notice early. Its report is based on U.S. Census data.
Its national list of fastest-rising metros for suburban poverty includes ailing areas like Detroit and Sun Belt foreclosure hot spots such as Las Vegas. But it also includes some prosperous, well-educated areas such as the Twin Cities, Denver, and, close to the top 10, Charlotte, Portland and Madison.
Brookings’ Kneebone said she thinks it’s an aftereffect of earlier success.
“These regions were growing, particularly before the downturn. There were jobs in the suburbs: jobs in construction, in services,” she said. “In places like Atlanta, a diverse population responded to that, and then when the economy turned down, a lot of people either were without work or finding work that pays less.”
Spectrum of need
The suburban poor fall into at least two types, Kneebone said: new and less affluent arrivals, often taking advantage of foreclosures and falling prices, and longer-term residents suffering from a change in circumstance.
The Mobile Pantry at Inver Hills sees both.
Muhammad Rashad, 20, is an Egyptian immigrant, drawn here by the presence of family in the area, but finding it difficult to find work in this economy as a full-time student. He hopes to transfer to the University of Minnesota and earn a degree in accounting.
For the moment, though, he said, “this is so important. I did just start working for the college, but it has been hard to get food.”
Christine Monroe, 45, of Inver Grove Heights, has been a Minnesotan “forever” but is supporting a daughter in college after losing a job in the optical industry. She’s retraining to be a nurse, but for now, she’s in need. “This is absolutely awesome,” she said, seated on the grass beside the truck. “My daughter does work at McDonalds, but before this, there was some skipping of meals.”
At Vineyard in Burnsville, said Fagerwick, “we have the capacity to double what we’re doing right now, and make a real impact on the hunger gap.”
One particularly gratifying thing he’s seeing is the phases experienced by immigrants.
“Our Hispanic population has grown dramatically in Dakota County. Our church now has a separate church for Hispanics,” he said. “And they are a huge part of our beneficiaries — but also, now our volunteers. Thirty to 40 percent are now Hispanics serving their own neighbors and friends in need, as they move into self-sufficiency.”