A new report shows that suburban residents are increasingly becoming mired in poverty, a “seismic shift” that challenges assumptions about where poor people now live, Lighthouse of Oakland County CEO and President John Ziraldo said.
His agency’s report, “Combating Poverty in Oakland County” shows that poverty grew 77 percent during the Great Recession years of 2005-2012, resulting in more than 118,000 residents – 37,184 of them children – in Oakland County living at or below the federal poverty guideline.
Lighthouse opened a center in Pontiac 42 years ago to deliver services to urban residents. It wasn’t surprising that poverty there increased 49 percent during the recession years, social service providers said in announcing the findings in the report, but simultaneous 76 percent increase in suburban communities shows the “place” of poverty has changed and become more suburban.
Lighthouse is now serving clients from the majority of communities throughout the county's 908 square miles.
From 2009-2013, the number of clients served from communities in south and west Oakland County grew by 200 percent or more.
Farmington, Novi, Clawson, Royal Oak, Madison Heights, Ferndale, Berkley, Southfield, Hazel Park, Franklin, Wixom and Walled Lake were among the suburbs with the fastest growing population of clients seeking Lighthouse services.
The report mirrors a national trend of increasing suburban poverty documented in The Brookings Institution's report Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, published in 2013.
Gilda Jacobs, a former state senator from Huntington Woods and now president of the Michigan League for Public Policy, said during a news conference announcing the report that its findings are mind-numbing” for affluent suburban residents who have been oblivious to poverty in their back yards, the Detroit Free Press reports.
Immediate steps that can be taken to help alleviate poverty include restoring the earned-income tax credit to assist the working poor who are under-employed and increasing the minimum wage, Jacobs said.
“I guess I am the new face of poverty” in Oakland County, Bridget Agnello, 49, said at the news conference. Formerly a marketing manager for Fortune 500 companies and a college graduate, she became homeless after losing her job during the Great Recession, and then her Ferndale home.
“It’s not somebody in the deepest part of Detroit or Pontiac,” she said. “It’s somebody standing next to you in the grocery store who can’t afford the broccoli.”
In Oakland County, a family of three needs an annual income of $46,944 to meet their basic needs, an income level that is 240 percent of the federal poverty line.
Not only does Oakland County have more people living below the poverty line, (federal definition is a family of three with an annual income below $19,530), it also has more than 191,000 residents with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, officials said.
Consequently, "more than 14 percent of Oakland County residents who live just above the poverty line struggle to meet their basic needs without support from the public or private safety net," Ziraldo said..
The new report will help social service providers and policymakers better understand the “new poor” and the factors contributing to the increase in poverty in affluent areas like Oakland County, including an exodus of Detroiters who left the city for suburbs seeking a better quality of life.
The report also sheds light on some of the unique challenges of suburban poverty, such as limitations of public transportation and social services.
"We see clearly the growing need in suburban communities throughout Southeastern Michigan,” said Michael Brennen, president of CEO of United Way of Southeastern Michigan. “Our commitment is to continue to help our suburban community partners, such as Lighthouse, meet that need."