Strained Suburbs, and the Nonprofits who serve them

I live in the suburbs.

It’s not the “suburbs suburbs”, in some ways: we have a one-car garage and tiny closets and, in the summer, often go several days without driving anywhere. It’s an “inner-ring” suburb, but, still, it’s the suburbs.

And what that means, increasingly, is that it’s a community dealing with some of the challenges long seen in more urban areas (and, manifested in different ways, in rural communities, too): rising poverty, declining populations, pockets of unemployment, aging infrastructure, and a strained tax base.

A paper released last fall by the Brookings Institution analyzes data about these trends in suburban parts of the country, but what, to me, is most significant about the findings is the inclusion of data on the nonprofit industry in the suburbs, too, and its overall inadequacy in meeting these rising needs (even before the cuts forced by the recession).

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that nonprofit organizations in the suburbs have suffered even slightly more than the overall nonprofit sector, in terms of loss of funding and staff cuts. We still have a lot of denial about the reality of need in suburban communities. Perhaps especially in a recession, people cling to the idea that “at least they’re better off than those others,” and that erroneous perception can serve as ammunition to dismantle the safety nets that we really, even here, need in place.

There are now more than 1.5 million MORE poor people in the suburbs than in central cities, and it’s likely that 2010 Census data, when released this fall, will affirm that this trend continues. Yet, here in our metropolitan area, there are organizations that specifically exclude some of our suburban counties’ residents from their services (including emergency assistance). There’s only one homeless shelter in the very populated suburban county where I live; to compensate, our church participates in a sort of “roving” shelter for homeless families. And there’s still a perception, heard everywhere from the school board to the sandbox, that poverty and need live somewhere else, despite the more than 30% of kids in our school district defined as “economically disadvantaged.”

On the one hand, these statistics are discouraging, even alarming. Suburbs are a place to which families moved to pursue, among other things, prosperity and economic security.

But that’s always been an illusion, this idea that one can relocate away from the structural injustices that characterize our society. And it is now being revealed for its fragility.

That means that we’ve no other option but to conclude that they are really us, and that those problems are really ours.

And that means that our nonprofit organizations, and we as residents of suburbs or cities or rural communities, need to solve them.


2 responses to “Strained Suburbs, and the Nonprofits who serve them

  1. Poverty here: And a frightening poverty of thought….

    Thanks for your post. And for provoking this reminiscence.

    We live in the same suburbs. (Although my home is a bit further south -away from the “city”- and has larger closets and a two car garage.) I’ve lived here in this suburban county pretty much all of my life. (And within 5 miles of where my great great grandparents settled in 1856 and where my great-grandfather and grandmother were born.)
    As a child I lived in what passed in Johnson County for an integrated neighborhood at the time: Meadow Lake. One block south was Leawood, an incorporated city in which Jews were not allowed to purchase property. So MY neighbors included Jews & Catholics, Italians, Presbyterians, a Polish family, and even Unitarians. (!!!)

    I realize now that my family had it pretty good. Many of the homes in my neighborhood were small ranch homes on concrete slabs. And on reflection many of our neighbors didn’t have much: and if not for the GI Bill they probably wouldn’t have had these small but nice homes even. But I never had a clue to poverty until I made friends with a skinny kid who lived in one of a cluster of old “shotgun bungalows” along Stateline (on the Kansas side) between 79th and 83rd. (In high school, just 5 or6 years later we watched the movie “Grapes of Wrath” and I was reminded of that childhood friend and his thread bare clothes, barefoot siblings, polite but pitifully frail mother, and father out-back tending a tremendous garden when all the other fathers I knew were away at “work.” They even had an outhouse and their water came from a well & pump! This was in the early 60s. I remember that my mother allowing me to go there and play, but cautioning me not to drink their water.) Those houses are long gone and forgotten now: replaced by BIG houses, and the land has been incorporated into Leawood. (An apparently new Leawood that by federal law must now allow not only Jews, but Arabs, and Indians, and even Negroes!)

    When I returned home from college in the mid 70’s with my bachelor’s degree in social work. (And a car!) My horizon had expanded. And I learned of the town of Holiday, a den of poverty clinging to the steep and shaded north facing slope of the Kansas River just below the county landfill. Ever reminiscent of an Appalachian village, conveniently hidden away from the rest of community, for “there is no poverty in Johnson County, Kansas and our schools are ranked as amongst the best in the country.”

    Today, Holiday has been largely gentrified and poverty has taken on a new cloak: massive homes purchased with now destroyed credit, neighbors we don’t know, and rarely see (as we go about our busy personal lives) and expansive apartment complexes of anonymous families. (Similarly lost to history is a small African American Community that was clustered along and west of Turkey Creek in Merriam: that community was “displaced” (and dispersed) with the construction of what is now I -35.)

    In late February this year, I attended a forum hosted by the Johnson County Library to examine the issue of poverty: and particularly childhood poverty in Johnson County. The speakers from United Community Services and Head Start, Kansas Action for children and Olathe Schools, were very well informed and prepared: and they were clear about the presence of poverty here and the measure by which it was levied on the shoulders of children. There was a nice turn out. It was when the forum was open for discussion that my heart sank. From several folks, there was what I believe was sincere and honest compassion but markedly influenced by what I can only describe as a tea party mentality: “The government should butt out! They are the cause of our problems here. We’ve relied upon them too much for too long. Our faith based community can take care of the needs here. But we’re not allowed.” Others alleged that (and what follows is almost a direct quote from one person) “The problem is all those people of color moving here from Wyandotte & Jackson county: we should be more selective but the government brought them here with the promise of cheap housing to forcibly integrate our neighborhoods!” One woman, identifying herself as a “city council member” (from no specified city) echoed similar suspicions of manipulation, and challenging the pannelists that ” I’m sure you make good money from the government and live in nice homes.” Another individual suggested (in response to a comment about Head Start needing to rely on translators in their work with some families,) that such immigrants should go back where they came from, and that “illegals” are robbing us blind.” The man making this particular allegation was totally ignoring the comment from the Head Start director, that each of their families, including those where English is not the language spoken at home, are here LEGALLY. (Some are here as refugees from our wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. Others are here as refugees from Somalia, Bosnia and Myanmar.) It was all I could do to restrain myself at the time from asking just where HIS family came from. None of thhis was said in a particularly hateful manner at all. Some how or another, sending people away, even if across the county line is a solution. ( Are these my neighbors? Really? Is THIS compassionate conservitism?) I am thus reminded every day now of the work that lies before us. (around us, behind us, and over us…)

    “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
    Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria…”

    Below are links to several articles about poverty HERE. And again thanks for your spark. I gotta go now. It seems that there’s work to be done.
    Gary Bachman MSSW

    The Hidden Poor in Johnson County

    Click to access Poverty2006inJohnsonCounty9-07.pdf

    Statistics Johnson County Poverty: Child Poverty
    Community Issues and Engagement
    Census data proves that poverty exists in Johnson County.

    • I was at that same forum at the library! And I agree–the tone of the discussion and comments alarmed me, too, particularly given the increasing urgency of the problem and the persistent unwillingness to face it among many in our area. Thanks for sharing the history, too–that’s an important context that’s often missing in places that present such an incomplete picture of their current and historical realities. I attended several of the forums about school closings in the Shawnee Mission District, too, and there were similar themes there–concern about which kids would be moved into certain attendance areas, about how property values would be affected by a particular school gaining Title 1 status…but also some really moving testimonies from parents whose own children’s lives and educations have been enhanced by the opportunity to learn in an environment more diverse than the one in which they live, many times. You’re right–there IS a lot to be done, both in terms of tangible action on poverty and in terms of how we approach confronting the realities and telling an honest story about who were are, as a community.

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