Beyond City Limits

Beyond City Limits

The U.S. phenomenon coined "the suburbanization of poverty" is challenging Americans to develop a new approach to mission and services that not only reaches inner cities but extends to their surrounding metropolitan areas as well.

As cities change, the suburbs do too. A recent analysis of 2000-2008 U.S. Census Bureau data by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, details the increasing flight from the suburbs by younger, educated white people looking for better job opportunities and shorter commutes in cities while rising numbers of lower-income, less educated, older people priced out of the market move to outlying suburban areas.

Rolf Pendall of the Urban Institute, a nonpartisian public policy research group in Washington, D.C., calls this "a challenge and an opportunity."

"In some metropolitan areas, concentrations of low-income people have been growing in suburbs, outside of traditional areas, as a result of factors ranging from government policies to gentrification," said Mr. Pendall, director of the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center. "Many people who think about city issues now are thinking about them in metropolitan contexts rather than just one city at a time."

Add to that mix the troubled economy and an influx of immigrants to the suburbs over the past decade, and a clearer picture emerges showing the urgency of broadening access to vital social services to metro regions encompassing cities and surrounding townships and municipalities.

The Urban Institute's Metro Trends Report notes cities like Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Chicago still attract big shares of immigrants. However, immigrant populations have doubled or tripled in Southern and Midwestern metropolitan areas that had relatively few immigrants 20 years ago - Atlanta, Ga.; Greensboro, N.C.; Indianapolis, Ind.; and Minneapolis, Minn.

Metropolitan areas experience these kinds of demographic changes in different ways. The common denominator is the need to extend services for low-income people, immigrants, the unemployed, children and the homeless beyond city limits. While a vast range of services - from English-as-a-Second-Language or General Education Diploma courses to assistance with cultural assimilation to homeless shelters and food pantries - generally are available in large cities, smaller towns often have fewer financial resources, less experience and a very limited number of agencies in place to provide the necessary comprehensive services.

The challenge is large and may be best addressed at the metropolitan level through the cooperative efforts of government, civil society, businesses and faith communities.

Consider immigration, or specifically, the need to integrate the nation's growing immigrant population into new communities. Cities traditionally home to large immigrant populations have developed a broad array of services to assist newcomers struggling to learn English, find housing, get jobs and care for their children. Those needs have followed immigrants to their new suburban communities.

San Francisco has long been a destination for young, educated people and home to a large Asian immigrant population. Many of these immigrants leave the cities as their fortunes improve or simply to escape the very expensive San Francisco housing market.

In response to the trend, Gum Moon Women's Residence, a United Methodist Women national mission institution, and its Asian Women's Resource Center operate satellite family support centers in the suburban townships of Richmond and Sunset in addition to its main facility in San Francisco's Chinatown.

"This is very important," said Gum Moon's Program Coordinator Montira Warren. A lot of these families still struggle - especially if they're young families with small kids, and they're still trying to figure out the whole parenting thing."

As with all non-English-speaking immigrants, Gum Moon clients must also learn to navigate life in an environment where they have not yet mastered the language, may not be well-prepared to gain employment and are struggling to make ends meet.

Wesley Community and Health Care Center, a national mission institution in Phoenix, Ariz., faces similar challenges. Controversy over illegal immigration has become so heated that the state recently passed restrictive legislation aimed at identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants. 

Despite the anti-immigrant environment, the agency's mission remains simple and clear: "Empowering positive change." Whether clients are documented or undocumented, whether they stay in the city, move elsewhere or leave the United States entirely is not a concern for the agency, says Betty Mathis, executive director of Wesley Community Center. 

"Our purpose in whatever we do - whether it's family and services, the health center or adult education - is to enable every person to be able to be a productive member of the community, no matter where they're going to end up or where they will ultimately decide to be," Ms. Mathis said. "We want them to be the best that they can be, and we do whatever we can do to help."

While help for low-income people takes different forms in different metropolitan areas, even affluent suburbs have not been insulated from pockets of poverty that require a response from a caring community.

Ellouise Pennington is a United Methodist Women leader at Duluth First United Methodist Church, located some 15 miles outside the city of Atlanta. The city continues to be a magnet for well-educated young people and is known for its affluence, yet there is an increasing presence of immigrants, low-income people and homeless. 

Ms. Pennington says the needs deserve a collective response. "We are all responsible for everybody, and if we can make the world a better place for somebody else, it is going to make our own world better."

Ms. Pennington's Mary Martha United Methodist Women's Circle provides special support to Murphy-Harpst Children's Centers, a United Methodist Women national mission institution in nearby Cedar Town, Ga. It also works with the congregation's homeless ministry for families with children and provides supplies for children at Sheltering Arms, a local low-income day care center.

Delores Carhee, president of the North Georgia Conference United Methodist Women, believes awareness of the issues, no matter where people live, is key to providing service.

"United Methodist Women has to be a supportive community," she said. "By being aware of what's going on in our cities and towns we can use our messaging and actions to make others aware of both the issues and the response required of us as United Meth-odist Women."

Women and children are among the most vulnerable members of society, and the recession has not made their lives any easier. Disappearing jobs in traditionally male-dominated industries has created a workforce population that now is evenly split between women and men.

At Gum Moon Residence, Ms. Warren has seen a marked change in the gender of parents accompanying children to the center's parent-child program, where a parent is required to stay with the child and to attend workshops and support groups. "We now have several fathers who come to the program with kids when the wife is at work," she said.

The increased strain on families as traditional gender roles are reversed make the services offered at Gum Moon - including a shelter for battered women, language classes and pre-employment training - even more crucial.

Unfortunately, even as more women become either the higher or the sole wage earner in struggling families, pay inequality continues to take a financial toll. Women still predominantly hold jobs in lower paying occupations than men and are paid less even when they do the same work. The result of the inequality in pay is that low-income women are less financially able to put food on the table and pay bills like rent and utilities.

"We're still seeing a pretty persistent wage gap, and that is troubling," said Debra Fitzpatrick, director of the University of Minnesota Center on Women and Public Policy in Minneapolis.

Responsibility for addressing all the issues of metropolitan areas lie with governments at all levels - and with a range of players from the business community, civil society and faith communities. Barring that kind of cooperation, the opportunity to create new systems that work for all members of society will be held captive to the demographic, social and economic forces now reshaping our cities and suburbs.

In Mr. Pendall's view, "The metropolitan regions that are most resilient in the face of these challenges will be the ones that help build new relationships across jurisdictional lines to take a more strategic and comprehensive view of responding to the problems and challenges of low-income people."

Posted or updated: 10/31/2010 11:00:00 PM
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