More people live in poverty in Baltimore's suburbs than in the city itself, part of a nationwide shift that is challenging the largely urban assistance network built up over decades.
Suburban poverty in the Baltimore area grew 58 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with 4 percent in the city, according to research released Monday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Such lopsided growth in the last decade is the reason the suburban poor now outnumber the urban poor — an eye-opening change for a region long used to thinking of suburban residents as the haves and Baltimoreans as the have-nots. The counties around Baltimore were home to about 159,000 of the region's poor in 2011, compared with about 150,000 poor residents in the city, Brookings found.
"The geography of poverty has fundamentally changed in a way that makes it harder to deal with," said Luis A. Ubinas, president of the Ford Foundation, who spoke at an event Monday about Brookings' new book, "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America." "America's suburbs, the aspirational place, the place you dreamt of going … have today become home to the same cycles of poverty that trapped people in the infamous bleak urban ghettos of the 1960s and '70s."
The need is more obvious in a city such as Baltimore because it's so concentrated, with a quarter of residents falling below the federal poverty line. That level amounts to less than $11,500 in annual income for a household of one and under $20,000 for a family of three.
But poverty has spread out as people move, lose jobs or take low-income positions — and it's spreading far faster than the groups that offer help. Federal funding still is distributed with 20th century perceptions about poverty, Brookings says.
Marcia Kennai, director of social services for Anne Arundel County, says the last few years alone have brought a tremendous increase in needs. About 7,500 residents received food stamps in the county's 2008 fiscal year, when the recession began. By last fiscal year, the number was up to nearly 20,000.
She thinks the growth is fueled in part by the difficult economy pushing some below the poverty line and in part by migration. Kennai, who lives in Baltimore, has seen city neighborhoods rebuild and become more expensive, pressing poorer residents out. Others arrive because they assume the suburbs offer more services than the city.
"That's not always true, because we often do not get the resources that the city or the urban areas might get," she said. "So I think they're surprised when they do move here."
Brookings researchers suggested government agencies and anti-poverty groups should rethink how — and where — they fund and provide services. The think tank isn't suggesting a focus on the suburbs at the expense of cities, but rather collaborations across county lines.
"This is an era of limited resources and continued problems in inner cities, so we can't afford to re-create community development for suburbia," said Alan Berube, co-author of the new book and a senior fellow at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "We don't have the resources and we don't have the time. What we need to look for are organizations that can do more than one thing in more than one place at once."
The change in where low-income people are living isn't the only reason there's a dearth of suburban assistance, he added. In some cases, it's a choice that communities have made in hopes that the poor will stay out.
But that doesn't take the American economy into account, he said.
"There are a lot of lower-wage jobs in America today, and most of them are in suburbs," Berube said. "About two-thirds of poor families have at least one worker in them."
Maureen Jiminez-Pinto, who works 20 to 25 hours a week as a cashier at Walmart, counts herself lucky: She found an apartment in Dundalk she can afford, after the nonprofit Arundel House of Hope provided rental assistance and pointed her toward a group providing utility help.
That stability is a relief. For nine months last year, she and her two teenage children lived in her car.
She'd moved them to the region from New York after earning a master's of business administration, hoping the lower-than-average unemployment rate here would make it easier to find a job in human resources. But she ran out of savings and could no longer afford her $935-a-month apartment in Anne Arundel County.
She landed the job as a cashier soon after her family became homeless, but the part-time pay of $9.40 an hour wasn't enough to get back into an apartment. Her life became a blur of work, school drop-offs and pick-ups, efforts to track down help and the daily struggle of coordinating food, bathroom breaks and places to park overnight.
Jiminez-Pinto, 52, said it takes time and patience to find help, but it is out there. She's grateful for the Arundel House of Hope's assistance.
"There's no stress; there's no wondering if we're going to make it next month," she said. "They've taken that edge right off."