A tourism guide depicts DuPage County, eight miles west of Chicago, as “the magnificent miles,” a playground of upscale hotels and shopping centers, manicured golf courses and pristine prairie paths. One of the nation’s wealthiest counties—with a median household income exceeding $77,000 a year—it’s a place where leafy older neighborhoods and historic downtowns alternate with new tracts of super-sized houses, landscaped corporate campuses and clusters of boxy industrial buildings.
By all appearances, John Moore, a corporate finance and strategy professional, enjoys the good life in a new subdivision on the western edge of the county, where homes sold for $490,000 when his was built in 2006. But appearances are deceiving. Two years ago, Moore lost his six-figure job at an international software company. He has nearly exhausted his savings paying his mortgage. Unable to find work or to sell his home in a market glutted with foreclosures, he visits food pantries to stock his fancy four-year-old kitchen. He gets medical care through a network that donates services to the low-income uninsured.
The same network helps Francisca, who asked that her last name be withheld. Francisca lives with her husband Julio and their four teenage sons in a two-bedroom apartment less than a mile from Village Hall in Addison. Julio makes $8.50 per hour working seven days a week, sometimes two shifts a day, cleaning warehouses, a church and a movie theater. Francisca tried to supplement the family’s meager income by buying discounted goods in Chicago and selling them to her neighbors at a profit. But lately, because of the bad economy, her customers can’t afford to pay for the winter coats they bought on installment.
In Glen Ellyn, where the median household income is nearly $90,000, Laura Davidson gets home from an overnight shift at Target to her family’s ground-floor apartment in time to take a two-hour nap before getting her six-year-old off to school. She will get another chance to sleep when her toddler naps at noon. Their middle-class life crumbled after her husband, a 31-year-old machinist, became disabled. Even with food stamps and help from charities, they aren’t making it.
These are not the comfortable lifestyles that lure families to the suburbs. Yet venture into any corner of DuPage County’s 334 square miles and you discover people in need. They include the newly impoverished, hit by illness or unemployment or both, and the marginally employed, whose payday-to-payday struggle gets harder in bad times.
The number of suburban poor is growing in metropolitan areas across the country. Their neighborhoods little resemble the graffiti-scarred pockets of hopelessness common to big cities; but their situation is no less debilitating. The suburban poor subsist, often all but invisible to the more-fortunate majority, in high-cost areas where their income doesn’t begin to cover basic needs.
“DuPage County has changed,” says Rita Gonzalez, a member of the DuPage County Board. “The demographics have changed. People’s financial situations have changed.” Today, nearly 6 percent of DuPage’s population of 930,000 lives below the federal poverty level of $22,050 for a family of four. A much larger segment struggles to make ends meet. These so-called “working poor” live at twice the poverty level, a common proxy for low income.
Together with poverty-level residents, they make up 15.8 percent of the county’s population, or about one in six residents. Their number grew steadily even during the boom years of the 1990s, more than doubling to about 145,000 by 2008.
“It’s a challenge to leadership to take the demographic shift that’s been going on for decades and make sure it is a positive for our community,” says Candace King, executive director of DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform, an umbrella group that coordinates responses to families in need.
A study in contrasts
The changes in DuPage mirror powerful trends across the country, where poor families in search of jobs and affordable rents move farther from city centers, even as affluent empty nesters and young professionals gravitate downtown. The United States marked a watershed in 2005 when the number of poor living in suburbs outnumbered those in cities for the first time, according to a Brookings Institution study of 100 metropolitan areas. Urban poverty is more concentrated; but in absolute numbers, the suburban poor population is larger.
“We are more of a suburban nation. Our suburbs are growing faster than the cities,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, a Brookings Institution senior analyst. “As that population has grown, it also has diversified.”
The result is sharp contrasts. In central Wheaton, across the street from luxury condominiums, people wait in line at a nonprofit for free food and clothing. In Lisle during evening rush hour, men and women with backpacks and rolling suitcases cross a busy six-lane highway on foot, making their way from a bus stop to an overnight shelter in a church. A meat market in Addison features goat legs for $2.79 per pound within a short drive from a Lombard butcher selling boneless prime rib for $12.99 per pound.
In a suburban land of plenty, the poor remain isolated and often overlooked. Immigrants such as Francisca, who came from Mexico 13 years ago to join her husband in Bensenville, increasingly bypass the city to settle in the suburbs, where they often find little support to help them assimilate.
Today, immigrants and low-income families displaced from gentrifying city neighborhoods crowd into older suburban apartments and tract homes. At the same time, many of the manufacturing jobs that once helped newcomers get a financial foothold have disappeared, replaced by low-paying service work. More recently, the collapse of the real estate market eliminated hundreds of local construction jobs.
Fernando Ibarra is feeling the impact. He stood shivering in line on a chilly evening last October, a clean-shaven 28-year-old in a gray sweatshirt, waiting for a food pantry to open at People’s Resource Center in downtown Wheaton. A bricklayer and union member, he and his brothers found good-paying jobs when they moved to West Chicago from Mexico six years ago, but the work dried up two years ago. Now he struggles to support his wife and two-year-old daughter on an $11 hourly wage assembling cabinetry. Of the construction market, he says simply, “It’s bad.”
Poverty rates inevitably increase during downturns, but suburban areas paid a heavier toll during this recession than in previous ones. Among the hardest hit are communities on the metropolitan fringe, where the torrid building boom fueled a false prosperity.
“Suburbs are feeling the brunt,” Kneebone says. “This downturn is only going to contribute to the suburbanization of poverty. Many areas are unprepared. There’s less of a safety net in these communities.”
In DuPage, both public and private providers of social services are feeling the strain. “All of the agencies are feeling a little bit overwhelmed,” says Joan Rickard, human services manager at DuPage County Community Services.
"I don't know where we would be"
At the nonprofit People’s Resource Center, a 35-year-old multiservice agency that operates one of the county’s largest food pantries, demand surged by nearly 30 percent in the second half of 2009 compared with the same period a year earlier. The pantry distributed nearly 21,000 grocery carts of food. Recipients are allowed one visit per month.
“It’s the most dramatic increase in our history,” says Development Director Karen Hill. “We’re seeing a lot of families that have never had to use a food pantry before, people who never in a million years thought they’d use a food pantry.”
“They’re desperately looking for any service,” says Food Services Director Melissa Travis. “We all have this image there’s this huge welfare state.” But many struggling people, she adds, “don’t qualify for any kind of government help. They can’t afford medical insurance, medicine for their kids, mortgage payments. They come in here much more stressed, much more afraid.”
Many of the pantry’s patrons are unemployed. But 56 percent report at least one family member working. They were getting by until their hours got cut or, like Ibarra, they were forced to take lower-paying jobs.
On the evening when Ibarra stood in line, the waiting area filled to standing room only with dozens of people, each with a different story. An Iraqi family had fled Baghdad’s violence for Wheaton. A 62-year-old Wood Dale woman quit her job to care for her frail husband. A mother of three could no longer make ends meet on her factory wages. A shy Sudanese refugee from Carol Stream lost her job as a nursing assistant.
Among the first-time visitors was Paula Marcum, a single mom with four children who works as an assistant facilities manager for a local bank. “Things have gotten a little tight,” says the Warrenville resident, explaining that she fell behind in her rent when a roommate moved out without warning.
Davidson, the Target employee, began visiting the pantry last year when she and her disabled husband, George, exhausted their savings. In better times, their combined household income had inched above $60,000. Then she was laid off from her job as an administrative assistant and her husband’s health deteriorated. The Social Security Administration denied him permanent disability payments for a degenerative spine condition that has left him unable to work or even to care reliably for their youngest, an active curly-haired blond toddler, Zachary.
Zachary played on the floor of their apartment’s small living room with a helicopter painted bright red—his favorite color—while his mother described how they’ve managed their more recent troubles. They experienced an eviction scare when their apartment building was foreclosed, but the bank allows them to make payments on their $750 monthly rent whenever she gets a paycheck from Target. When they fell behind on their utilities, she found a second part-time job at a daycare center for dogs. Even so, their electricity was turned off for weeks last summer until an emergency program and a relative helped them settle their $1,500 balance. Government food programs and food pantry visits keep meals on their table.
“Without the community’s help I don’t know where we would be,” says Laura Davidson, naming nearly a dozen churches, charities and agencies that have assisted her family. “We are very grateful. We don’t take anything for granted.”
One of the best examples of DuPage’s efforts to marshal resources is Access DuPage, a health care network for the county’s low-income uninsured. Last year, the network of more than 225 physicians, hospitals and medical facilities provided more than $55 million in donated services and medicine while delivering benefits at a lower cost than average for employer-sponsored insurance plans.
The network’s membership grew by nearly 30 percent—to 10,600 patients—during the year ending in June 2009, a period of “unprecedented growth,” says Director Kara Murphy. About 60 percent of all members are Latino immigrants, but the network also is seeing an influx of patients who emigrated as part of U.S. resettlement programs from countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“Historically they would have come and resettled in our community and not had difficulty securing employment,” says Murphy. “It might not have been highly paid but they would have been able to find work to give them a foothold. The challenge of this economy is that there is ever more competition for ever fewer opportunities.”
"At this point I need miracles"
Access DuPage member Estella Rodriguez, 61, spends part of her days keeping the linoleum floors shining in the spotless basement apartment she shares with her husband in Glendale Heights. They pay rent to a family that owns the split-level house, where an American flag decal decorates the front door. She also takes an English class at the College of DuPage and looks for work. Her husband, who is treated for cancer by Access DuPage, earns $7.75 per hour as a commercial mover. (The minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 per hour.)
A grandmother now, Rodriguez raised two sons alone while working in an airplane-parts factory after emigrating from Mexico to California in 1985. One son is a registered nurse; the other works in medical records. “I’m very happy about my sons; they have a good life,” she says. “I love America.”
For Francisca’s four teenage sons, a similar upwardly mobile path seems less certain. Isolated from support that could help her improve her prospects, she encounters barriers even when she tries to access basic safety-net services at the food pantry near her apartment in Addison.
On one visit to the pantry, Francisca brought one of her sons—a polite and fluently bilingual high school senior—to help her communicate in English. The pantry’s paid coordinator sent the pair away to get copies of their birth certificates, a requirement to be placed on a list for holiday baskets. When they returned with the copies, he asked them for a letter proving the family’s need. When she returned with the letter, hoping to take home food, he allowed her to take some bread off a front table, then motioned her to an exit.
On a cold evening in Francisca’s small living room, an image of Mary Magdalene flickered on a votive candle. Her family turned on the kitchen’s oven to warm the apartment. She recalled a time when both she and Julio were sick and unable to work, when the family ate for a week on $34 they had saved for emergencies.
Then Julio spoke about his dream of a better future for his sons: good jobs, a home. What would it take to realize his dream? “At this point I need miracles,” he says.
Barbara Rose is an independent journalist specializing in economics and workplace issues. She wrote a column about work and covered labor and employment issues for the Chicago Tribune.