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.