Newsweek: Hunger Stalks the Suburbs

Is hunger stalking the suburbs?

Yes, according to Newsweek's February 12 story "Poor Among  Plenty -- For the first time, poverty shifts to the U.S. suburbs," by Peg Tyre and Matthew Philips. (How Newsweek managed to obtain a photo of the inside of my freezer is another story entirely.)

"Six years ago, Brian Lavelle moved out of the city of Cleveland to the nearby suburb of Lakewood for what he thought would be a better life. Back then, Lavelle, 38, was a forklift operator in a steel mill making $14 an hour. He had a house, a car and was saving for his retirement. Then, three years ago, the steel mill closed and Lavelle found that the life he dreamed of was just that, a dream. The suburbs, he quickly learned, are a tough place to live if you're poor. For starters, there isn't much of a safety net in his community. Food pantries, job-retraining centers and low-cost health clinics are hard to come by. He can't afford either gas or car insurance, and inadequate public transportation hurts him, too. Not long ago, he was offered a job in another suburb, 'but it just wasn't doable.' The commute by public bus would have taken him three hours each way.

"Once prized as leafy haven from the social ills of urban life, suburbs are now grappling with a new outbreak of an old problem: poverty. Currently, 38 million Americans live below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as an annual income of $20,000 or less for a family of four. But for the first time in history, more of America's poor are living in the suburbs than the cities -- 1.2 million more, according to a 2005 survey. 'The suburbs have reached a tipping point,' says Brookings Institution analyst Alan Berube, who compiled the data. For example, five years ago, a Hunger Network food pantry in Bedford Heights, a struggling suburb of Cleveland, served 50 families a month. Now more than 700 families depend on it for food."

That sort of questionable anecdote is reminiscent of the unfortunate misleading trend of media outlets (thankfully on the wane) of uncritically citing U.S. Conference of Mayors annual reports on hunger and homelessness, which, when taken cumulatively, claimed an utterly implausible 1240% increase of hunger in America over the 15-year period from 1987 to 2002.

Tyre and Philips insist:

"Suburban poverty can also be invisible. Poor people who live in the city tend to be concentrated in subsidized housing or in neighborhoods where the rent is low, which in turn attract retail businesses that target customers with low incomes. Poor suburbanites often live in the same ZIP codes as their affluent neighbors, shop at the same stores and send their children to the same public school. And if people don't see themselves as poor, they often don't seek the help they need."

Although the magazine admits many don't seek help, they paint the Democrats as saviors:

"Help appears to be on the way. The new Democratic majority in Congress is trying to make good on its promise to raise the minimum wage for the first time in 10 years. Bills upping the hourly rate from $5.15 to $7.25 by 2009 have passed both the House and the Senate. But analysts at the Economic Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, say that while some 4.5 million suburbanites will benefit from a minimum-wage hike, it's not enough. 'It's not a living wage, it's a minimum wage,' says EPI senior economist Jared Bernstein, who says there's still a yawning gap between what people earn and what it costs to live that must be addressed."

Newsweek fails to mention the pro-labor liberal lean of EPI (no conservative sources are quoted in the article, just two liberal ones, EPI and the Brookings Institution).

Newsweek also ignores the fact that very few family supporters even earn the minimum wage, so raising it would hardly make a real dent anyway, even without the resulting job losses most economists predict. As Eduardo Porter reported in Sunday's New York Times, "The number of workers earning the minimum wage has shriveled in the United States. In 2005, fewer than 2 million people earned no more than the federal minimum wage, down from 4.4 million as recently as 1998."

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