Latest Trend in Suburban Malls: Child Poverty

By Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

Latest Trend in Suburban Malls: Child Poverty


Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In the gleaming grocery stores of suburbia, shoppers with Gucci purses are lining up behind families with food stamps. Around the corner from sprawling malls and modern public schools, many parents are quietly struggling to provide food and clothes for their children.

Even in Overland Park, Kan., an affluent suburb of Kansas City, social workers are seeing a sharp rise in the the number of needy poor families.

"We've seen a growing number of working poor in this community," says Karen Wulfkuhle, head of United Community Services of Johnson County. "There is a labor deficit in this area, and there are jobs that are going unfilled. But many of them are low-paying without any benefits." It may be hidden behind the clean streets and manicured lawns of suburban America, but poverty among young children in the suburbs is going up as fast as tract housing. The depth of the problem was revealed in a recent report, which showed that poverty among children under 6 is growing nearly twice as fast in the suburbs as in cities. "The suburbs are starting to look more and more like the rest of America," says Julian Palmer, spokesman for the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University, which conducted the study. Although the heaviest concentration of poor children is still in urban areas, the strains of poverty are bursting the city limits and invading the suburbs. Between the late 1970s and early '90s, the suburban child-poverty rate increased nearly 60 percent. Meanwhile, urban poverty rose 34 percent, and rural poverty grew 45 percent. Seventeen percent, or 2.1 million, of suburban children under 6 now live in poor families. While the economy is doing well nationwide, many less-educated parents are finding it impossible to get jobs that pull them above the poverty line. "This is something that people don't see, but it's real," says Arloc Sherman, a researcher at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington. "It's not just a case of poor children moving out to the suburbs. It's the underlying failure of the economy to generate family-supporting jobs. In the '70s, family breakup was propelling a lot of poverty.

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