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Suburban Poverty, Served Chicago Style

Ben Franklin said we must all hang together or we'll probably all hang separately. That must be the mantra of today's regional planners.

"The suburban dream often fades for poor families because old support systems are severed, and access to programs and services — day care, after-school programs, job training, drug treatment and counseling — are greatly hampered by shear distance." Those are the thoughts of Ed Goetz, a housing policy specialist at the University of Minnesota interviewed for David Villano's recent piece, "The Slumming of Suburbia."

A new report conducted for The Chicago Community Trust backs up the gist of that depressing scenario, at least in America's Second City and its six-county metro area. (Here's a 64-page PDF of the work.) The report cites a web of conflicting responsibilities, refusal to take on new duties and general tough times as adding to the problem.

Perhaps the main reason to care about providing social services in the 'burbs is presented quite starkly in our piece and the Chicago report: The poverty level in the suburbs is climbing even as it drops in many cities. According to the report, "Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the number of individuals with incomes below the poverty level increased by 16 percent in all suburban townships between 1990 and 2000 but actually decreased by 6 percent in the city during the same time period."

Chicago's situation is made worse, it seems, by gentrification, loss of public housing and the preference some recent immigrants have for certain suburban destinations.

Presumably the current financial meltdown can only exacerbate the problem, creating even larger populations in need of services traditionally and more easily provided in central cities. "With the wave of mortgage foreclosures that ushered in the current crisis, homeless shelters in the metropolitan area report increases of between 5 and 39 percent between October 2008 and January 2009," write authors  Rebecca Hendrick, an associate professor of public administration, and Karen Mossberger, professor of public administration, both at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "These figures suggest rapid increases in hardship that have not yet been fully measured."

But even barring that variable, a more predictable factor will also make the need more urgent: the aging of the suburban population.

The report combines data from the counties, suburban cities and "townships," those vestigial 6-mile-by-6-mile governing squares created by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. While that creates a patchwork of responsibilities for social services somewhat unique to the Midwest — townships in Illinois are required to provide the type of welfare known as "general assistance" — the underlying message resonates regardless of geography.

Those can be summed up through some bullet points identified by UIC:

" • Forty percent of municipal governments said they should not be involved in social service delivery.

" • Most local governments contract with nonprofits or other governments to provide social services.

" • Sixteen percent of suburbs said they have recently taken steps to reduce or eliminate services."

Reducing services? This seems like a poor time to reduce services. It's tied up in taxing authority, etc., but also in the growth in need.

"Nearly half of the townships expect much more need for food assistance (such as food pantries) and at least 40 percent expect much more need for emergency assistance and health care (medical assistance and mental or general health). A little over one-third of townships anticipate more need for both for GA, employment and training, and homeless assistance, and senior housing and programs."

And for small cities?

"Senior needs rank highest, with job, youth, and health services all scoring as high-need areas among 25 percent or more of the respondents. Immigration and homelessness rank fairly low in the list, perhaps because they are more geographically concentrated. Around 40-50 percent of municipalities believe that they won't be able to meet all of these needs, and almost 60 percent of municipalities perceive some unmet needs for senior programs. There is a tendency to feel that needs will be highest in areas where more municipalities now deliver services (such as senior programs).

" Interestingly enough, about the same proportion of municipalities and townships estimate that there will be much more need for youth ..."

Since that's kind of a sad place to leave off, the report does offer some suggestions to alleviate these shortfalls. Once you subtract the "ask someone else for money" ideas, the recommendations center on stronger and smarter collaboration among the plethora of governments in the metro area.

"Mayors in declining areas need to talk to one another," Blitstein quoted University of Texas at Arlington professor Thomas Vicino last year in an article that used decline in the Baltimore area to spin a similar tale. "They need to cooperate and come together. These little suburbs are not capable of fighting the decline on their own."

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