Poverty Rates Surge in American Suburbs

January 29, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Host Rafael Pi Roman talks to PBS  NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson about reporting on suburban poverty.

By all appearances, Leigh Scozzari is living a comfortable suburban life.  She baked cookies one recent afternoon with her four-year-old twins at her mom’s place in Shirley, Long Island – about 65 miles east of New York City.  Scozzari owns an SUV, the girls spend their days at a nice day care center and Scozzari works a full-time job.

“A lot of people look at me and they judge me just by looking at me, like, ‘Okay, well, she has a job, you know.  She – you know, she has a home and – you know, her kids look very well taken care of.  Why would she need any help at all?'” said Scozzari.

Scozzari needs help because, by official standards, she and her daughters live in poverty.  Her job as a certified medical assistant pays just over $19,000 a year and offers no benefits.  So Scozzari is on Medicaid, gets food stamps, and a government subsidy to pay for child care she could never otherwise afford.  This 30-year old single mom lives in that two-bedroom house with her mother and pays rent.  Her car has almost 200,000 miles on it and is in such bad shape Scozzari says she’s afraid to drive it.

Scozzari told PBS NewsHour Weekend reporter Megan Thompson that what may seem like a solution to someone analyzing her situation – moving from the relatively high-cost area that she lives in – isn’t really an option for her.

“She doesn’t really feel like she has a choice right now,” said Thompson. “At this point living with her mom is actually the affordable option for her, she only pays a few hundred dollars a month in rent, her mom can help babysit, the girls have a backyard. So even though some costs are really high, this is what’s making sense for her now.”

Thompson said that cases like Scozzari’s beg the question of what poverty looks like in the suburbs. “Often we’re not talking about people who were born into poverty or families that have been entrenched for generations,” Thompson said. ” Leigh’s mom actually inherited this house from her grandmother, this is a family that I would say has been solidly middle-class for generations and that’s why they have this house, they live where they live.”

Elizabeth Kneebone, a Brookings Institute fellow who Thompson spoke to about about suburban poverty, pointed out that “a lot of these existing federal programs were designed mostly for urban areas or rural areas, so maybe if we take these existing programs, rejigger them so they’re a little more flexible and more able to address poverty where it is now, that’s another way to look at this.”