Hidden In The Suburbs: America's New Poor

By Kate Sheehy
November 05, 2013
Kate Sheehy
East Valley Family Services is a resource center providing education programs, food donation and employment services in the Las Vegas valley.

LAS VEGAS — Poverty in the United States is no longer relegated to the ghettos and barrios of the inner cities. Today, more poor people can be found living in the suburbs than the cities.

Between 2000 and 2012 the number of people living below the poverty line in the suburbs of Las Vegas has more than doubled. Hidden in the midst of seemingly middle-class neighborhoods, the poor population is harder to find and harder to help.

Olga Perez has been receiving boxes of food for the last few weeks as part of a assistance program at East Valley Family Services, a few miles from the Las Vegas strip. She attends food security classes and in return, receives groceries. 

“The fruit is very good. They bring it to us from a farm,” she said.

Perez said the boxes of fresh, healthy food have provided some relief for her and her family. She said there are no resources like that in her neighborhood. 

Perez lives about 20 minutes from the center of the city near the mountains that surround the valley. The apartment has three bedrooms and nice hardwood floors. She and her husband live here with her mother and one of her daughters. It’s a nice suburban life, but even this is a big change from the lifestyle she used to have.

Kate Sheehy
Olga Perez unloads groceries she picked up at East Valley Family Services. She says the healthy food has provided relief for her family.

“We had enough food to eat, we did more activities, we lived a lot better,” Perez said. 

She and her husband came from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico in 1996 when there were lots of job opportunities in Las Vegas. Her husband had a good job in construction and she cleaned houses.

Then the recession hit in 2008. They lost their two-story, four-bedroom house and had to trade in their new cars.

Perez’s story is a common one for many people here in the Las Vegas Valley. Low-interest mortgages lured more people into these areas, and then during the housing crash many lost their homes like Perez, but remained in the suburbs.

Elizabeth Kneebone has been studying poverty for a decade. She is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Kneebone recently co-authored a book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.”

“Suburbs have been growing faster than cities in our major metro areas, and as they’ve grown they’ve become more diverse-both economically and demographically,” Kneebone said.

Kate Sheehy
Perez's oldest daughter and her granddaughter help her put away groceries.

The housing bust has actually contributed to the trend, homes in nice but overbuilt neighborhoods available for much lower prices, even to rent. Kneebone said people are also using housing vouchers that were once restricted for use in inner city low-income housing projects.

“In many ways our perceptions and policies about poverty haven’t kept pace with that change and in some ways that’s because poverty in the suburbs can be hidden,” she said.

These hidden pockets of poverty pose a challenge for Mary Wilson. She’s a Nutrition Specialist with the University of Nevada’s Cooperative Extension. She educates people on how to maintain a healthy diet using food stamps.

“Even in some of the more affluent parts of town, we find a fair number of low-income families and seniors,” Wilson said.

Census poverty numbers identify areas where nutrition assistance can be offered. But with poverty sprinkled throughout the suburbs, some census tracts don’t qualify.  

Kate Sheehy
Olga Perez's apartment complex in North Las Vegas, about 20 minutes from the city center.

“We have to be more inventive of how we qualify those sites in order to be able to go in and provide nutrition education,” she said.

So they visit senior centers and look at the services they need to provide, or if there is a school with a large population of kids receiving lunch assistance, they try to reach out to the parents.  

During a food security class at East Valley Family Services, a handful of people listened to a presentation on how to prevent high blood pressure and diabetes. The director of the agency, Alicia Davisson, said the crowd here has changed in recent years. She said more and more they are seeing first-time clients.

“The people, the families that we’re dealing with right now are not the typical, what a person might think of as a poverty family,” Davisson said.

Kate Sheehy
Olga Perez in her apartment in a quiet suburban area of Las Vegas. Before the recession she and her family lived in a large house.

A stylishly dressed African-American woman shared her story.  She’s a single mother of two and lives in a gated townhome community on the east side of the city.

She recently left her job when her hours were cut, and she lost her health insurance. She has a college degree and said this is the first time she hasn’t had steady work. She didn’t want to speak on the record, or let us use her name, because she doesn’t want her kids to get scared.

When her electricity was recently shut off, her kids starting asking her if they were going to be homeless. She said she’s terrified her kids won’t have much of a Christmas this year.