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Suburbanization of poverty impacts Baltimore region [Editorial]

A landmark book published in 1962, "The Other America" by Michael Harrington, was a stark depiction of the level of poverty that existed in this country. It can be argued how much that has changed in 50 years, but one thing is certain — then, as now, poverty is largely invisible to many of us.

That's why it might come as a surprise that, according to a recent study, more people live in poverty in the Baltimore suburbs than in the city itself.

Those who live in suburban Baltimore — Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties — are probably accustomed to associating the needy as those living in the blighted city neighborhoods far inside the Beltway: boarded-up row-houses, empty storefronts, trash-filled streets.

Yet research released recently by the Brookings Institute shows that suburban poverty in the Baltimore region grew 58 percent from 2000 to 2011, compared to 4 percent in the city over the same period. The total number in poverty in the suburbs in 2011 was 159,000, compared to 150,000 poor in the city.

To give one benchmark, poverty is defined as a family of three with an annual income of less than $20,000.

The study gives several reasons for this, including economic conditions that have pushed suburban residents below the poverty line. Also, however, it points out migration from the city to the surrounding counties by people who have lost jobs in the city and gone in search of low-paying positions outside the city.

These poor are often the elderly, children and minorities, according to the study, who may escape our notice.

Federal funding for poverty relief remains stuck in 20th-century perceptions about the poor, failing to account for the increased poverty in areas which have traditionally not been the target of aid, according to the Brookings Institute study. That means it is up to local agencies, and those who support them financially, to fill the gap — a gap which shows no sign of shrinking. So it's really up to citizens who are able to help to dig a little deeper to support nonprofits, religious groups, food banks, shelters and other charitable organizations with their donations.

We owe this not only to those who for reasons often outside their control — birth, family strife, job loss, medical bills — are mired in poverty and need our help, but we owe it also to the communities where we live. The suburbanization of poverty has placed the problem perhaps not literally in our backyards, but close.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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