Pittsburgh suburbs suffering poverty at high rate

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Poverty is growing at a faster rate in the suburbs than in the cities, and the Pittsburgh area is ahead of the curve -- but not in a good way.

Nationally, about 55 percent of the population living in poverty is outside of cities, but in Allegheny County, 61 percent of people living in poverty are in the suburbs, and the number rises to 79 percent when the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area is measured. That area includes Allegheny and its six surrounding counties.

Those numbers come from Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and co-author of "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America."

Ms. Kneebone said suburban poverty has been growing since 2000 and became more significant than urban poverty even before the economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009. The recession exacerbated it.

The increase in suburban poverty has been created by more poor families moving to the suburbs, perhaps to seek more affordable housing or jobs in retail outlets, and the slide down the economic ladder of families who lost jobs in the shaky economy.

The result is more poor families living in the suburbs where public transportation is less frequent and reliable, social service providers more scarce and schools less equipped to deal with the situation than in cities, experts say.

Federal guidelines consider an income of $23,500 to be poverty level for a family of four, Ms. Kneebone said.

The topic was discussed last week during a gathering held by the Homeless Childrens Education Fund titled "Summit IV: Beyond the City" at which Ms. Kneebone was a keynote speaker.

Peter Miller, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, who studies how schools respond to students living in poverty and homelessness, said more than 1 million students nationally have been identified as homeless.

In the Penn Hills School District, he said, the number of students identified as homeless increased from eight in 2008 to 82 in 2012-13. "That's a dramatic increase," he said.

"If you have kids who don't have enough to eat or a place to sleep, you can forget about reading or math scores," Mr. Miller said.

Other districts that reported their total of homeless students to the HCEF included Wilkinsburg, with 245 students, making up 24 percent of its population; Clairton with 61 students for 8 percent of its student body; Woodland Hills with 184 students or 5 percent; Deer Lakes with 80 students or 4 percent; and Pittsburgh with 718 students or 3 percent.

The Shaler Area School District is learning about students living in poverty and homelessness with the opening of the new HEARTH center on Mount Royal Boulevard, which provides transitional housing and support services to homeless women and children. In addition, superintendent Wesley Shipley said, students are living in poverty in some of the communities of the district outside of Shaler.

There are now 28 homeless children in the Shaler schools, about 1 percent of the student population. Millvale, Etna and Reserve also are part of the school district.

"There are people who live in Shaler, which is a very stable community, who don't know the level of poverty that exists in the other communities," he said.

In addition, he said, some taxpayers don't understand that the district is obligated by the federal McKinney Vento Act to educate the homeless students who come to the district.

"The law is in total contrast to what some taxpayers want and that is a challenge we face," he said.

Jim Guffey, executive director of South Hills Interfaith Ministries, said U.S. Census figures don't show a concentration of poverty in the communities that his agency services, which include Baldwin, Whitehall, Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair and South Park. Yet demand for its services, which include a food bank, has grown drastically over the past five years.

Many, he said, are families that once had two healthy incomes and now because of unemployment or underemployment are "one crisis away" from being homeless.

Transportation becomes an obstacle for the suburban poor particularly with the reduction of bus service in Allegheny County in recent years.

The website for Ms. Kneebone's book holds a case study on Penn Hills as an example of a suburban community that has seen its poverty rate increase at a time when access to public transportation has decreased.

It describes Penn Hills as the county's second-largest community that "came of age" as a bedroom community for workers at the formerly nearby Westinghouse Electric Co. But with the deterioration of the area's industrial base, starting in the 1980s, Penn Hills has lost population and jobs and has seen an influx of lower-income African-American families.

The report said the poverty rate in Penn Hills rose from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2008. The local unemployment rate as of December 2012 was 8.2 percent in Penn Hills as compared with 7.1 percent in Pittsburgh.

The case study says one in 10 households lacks access to a vehicle and that Port Authority bus route cuts have made it difficult for many Penn Hills residents to maintain employment, grocery shop, visit doctors or get to service providers.

"While many of the African American-residents moved there from very poor Pittsburgh neighborhoods facing even greater economic and social disadvantages, this suburban community confronts its own set of challenges in connecting its low-income families to opportunity," the report said.

The experts at the summit said to respond to suburban poverty, more social service agencies should be located outside of cities, reliable public transportation should be provided and community leaders should cross geographic boundaries and work together.

The current service network "is not aligned with the geography of poverty," Ms. Kneebone said.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590.

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