Poverty in the U.S. 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 unloads boxes of food in the parking lot of her apartment complex. Perez receives the food as part of an assistance program at East Valley Family Services, a few miles from the Las Vegas strip. She says 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.
“We had enough food, she says we did more activities, we lived a lot better,” says Perez.
She and her husband came from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico in 1996 when there were lots of job opportunities in Las Vegas – construction and house cleaning for example.
Perez's oldest daughter and her granddaughter help her put away groceries.
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 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,” says Kneebone.
The housing bust has actually contributed to the trend, homes in nice but overbuilt neighborhoods available for much lower prices, even to rent. Kneebone says people are also using housing vouchers that were once restricted for use in inner city low-income 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,” says Kneebone.
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,” says Wilson.
Census poverty numbers identify areas where nutrition assistance can be offered. But with poverty sprinkled throughout the suburbs, some census tracts don’t qualify.
“We have to be more inventive of how we qualify those sites in order to be able to go in and provide nutrition education,” says Wilson.
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.
A handful of people are attending a food security class at East Valley Family Services. The director Alicia Davisson says the crowd here has changed in recent years. She says 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.”
A stylishly dressed African-American woman shared her story. She’s a single mother of two and lives in a gated town home 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 didn’t want to talk on tape, 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 says she’s terrified her kids won’t have much of a Christmas this year.