Twin Cities suburban poor outnumber those in urban core

Fresh produce
Signs in English and Spanish at the Prince of Peace church's Mission Outpost food shelf direct clients to fresh produce in Burnsvile.
Laura Yuen | MPR News file

Twin Cities suburbs that are home to increasing numbers of poor residents are struggling to maintain housing, build transportation infrastructure and make sure residents have access to social services.

A report recently released by the Metropolitan Council found that more residents are now living in poverty in the suburbs and rural areas of the seven-county metropolitan area than in the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The report defines poverty as 185 percent of the federal poverty line, which is about $44,000 year for a family of four. The report found that there are now more than 385,000 people living in poverty in the metropolitan area's suburbs and rural areas compared to 259,000 in Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.

Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik told MPR News host Tom Weber that the increased poverty has been noticeable on her city's north side, which is much more densely populated than the more traditionally suburban south side.

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Slawik was one of a number of suburban mayors who met this spring to talk about suburban poverty. She said part of the problem is that housing stock that was built in the middle of the last century is starting to deteriorate.

"Our housing stock is getting older, and people are having trouble keeping up with payments, which cause some of the foreclosure issues," Slawik said. "We also have some issues with rehabbing."

One way Slawik says her city is trying to keep up property values is by creating a pool of money that residents can access to maintain or repair their homes.

But adequate housing is only one challenge facing suburban cities like Maplewood. Slawik said less wealthy residents also can have trouble finding reliable transportation to work in the suburbs. That's why she's a supporter of more transportation infrastructure, like the Gateway Corridor proposal, which would include a bus rapid transit line from downtown St. Paul to Woodbury and Lake Elmo.

In 2000, the number of poor people in suburban and rural areas was about the same as in Minneapolis and St. Paul combined. But poverty in the suburbs increased by 92 percent by 2013. Poverty in the core cities grew at a much slower pace.

Poverty used to be a mainly urban and rural problem. But the suburbanization of poverty is now happening across the country, said Libby Starling, manager of Regional Policy and Research at the Metropolitan Council.

"It's not that people are moving to the suburbs because of particular opportunities," Starling said. "It is people who have been living in suburban locations who are seeing their economic circumstances change."

But other poor residents are finding refuge in the suburbs as rents continue to increase in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"The core cities are becoming more desirable places to live, which drives up housing costs," Starling said.

In 2000, there were no concentrated pockets of poverty (where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty) in suburban cities in the area, Starling said. Now pockets of concentrated poverty exist across the region, including in suburbs like Coon Rapids and Shakopee.

The spread of poverty across the region has some social service agencies scrambling to provide services to poor families.

Food support groups have known for a long time that poverty was spreading to suburban areas, said Second Harvest Heartland CEO Rob Zeaske. But the data showing the increase in poverty has lagged behind reality, sometimes making it difficult for social service organizations to obtain the necessary funding to serve poor residents in those areas.

Zeaske said food banks have been stretching their limited resources to reach people in the suburbs.

"In the urban core, many of those places are more geographically concentrated, and that has made some of the work simpler," Zeaske said. "Getting a little more creative and strategic with how we get to where these neighbors in need are is a very big challenge."

Slightly more than one in five Metro area residents, or about 645,000 people, live in poverty, according to the report. People of color are much more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty, with one of three residents of color in the region living in areas of concentrated poverty.