Majority of Pittsburgh's poor are in suburbs

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When Lyndon Johnson wanted to put a face on his new War on Poverty in 1964, he travelled to Martin County in rural Kentucky.

When Alexandra Murphy wanted to study poverty in 2009, she moved to Penn Hills -- to put a face on new suburban poverty.

By some measures, the picture of poverty in America hasn't changed much since Johnson stood before Congress 50 years ago Wednesday to declare an "unconditional war on poverty in America" as part of his State of the Union address.

The national poverty rate then was 19 percent. The most recent census estimated the national poverty rate at 15 percent, aggregating data from 2008 to 2012.

But the details are far different.

"Poverty is changing somewhat," said Morton Coleman, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. "In the 1960s, the most vulnerable population were people over 65. Today, the most vulnerable population are kids under 18."

And since 2000, the greatest share of poor people in the United States live in the suburbs, once thought of as landing zones for the prosperous.

In Allegheny County, 61 percent of people living in poverty are in the suburbs, according to census figures.

"There's this dramatic new shift, and we don't know much about it," said Ms. Murphy, who moved to Penn Hills to do the research for her dissertation in a Ph.D. program at Princeton University.

She lived there for 3½ years, witnessing the struggles of those living in poverty in the suburbs.

Suburban poverty is much less dense and less apparent than urban poverty, where the poor might congregate in public spaces.

"Poverty is really invisible in the suburbs," said Ms. Murphy, now doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. "One of the biggest challenges is just recognizing that it's there in the first place."

Penn Hills was built up after World War II, meant to draw young families employed at places such as the nearby Westinghouse Electric Co.

In recent years, the poverty rate has risen: from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2008.

At a conference in November organized by the Homeless Children's Education Fund, the Penn Hills School District reported that the number of children identified as homeless rose from eight in 2008 to 82 in 2012-13.

One way the U.S. census defines poverty is an income below three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963, adjusted for inflation. For a family of four, that figure in 2012 is $23,283.

Factors leading to a rise in suburban poverty include the dismantling of large urban housing projects, the foreclosure crisis and the economic downturn.

Suburban poverty poses unique challenges, Ms. Murphy said. Local governments and social service agencies often aren't equipped to deal with the problems of the poor, or don't have the funding to do so. And transportation looms large in the daily struggle for suburban poor.

While Ms. Murphy was living in Penn Hills, budget cuts at the Port Authority of Allegheny County cut back bus service by about 15 percent. For people who had moved there just because of the bus lines, this was life-changing.

People had to find new ways "to get their kids to Head Start, to get to the grocery store," she said. "Transportation is huge."

Mr. Coleman, who was one of the architects of Pittsburgh's war on poverty programs in the 1960s, notes the increases in poverty in Mon Valley towns such as Duquesne, Homestead and Clairton -- especially compared to the mid-1960s, when Pittsburgh was still dominated by the steel industry.

For those looking to move out of poverty, the economic landscape has changed dramatically. Mr. Coleman uses the example of the Waterfront in Homestead -- once U.S. Steel's Homestead Works, where a kid growing up in Pittsburgh could have a reasonable expectation of someday securing a job paying about $14 an hour. Now, that space is filled with retail jobs paying between $8 and $10, he said.

"We still have a serious problem of poor people that we haven't figured out how to resolve yet," he said. "And we don't seem to have the same public commitment to solve it as we did in the early years."

Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308.

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