The number of people in poverty on the North Shore has increased by 20 percent over the last 10 years, according to Margo Casey of the North Shore United Way. Turning the tide will require a regional effort.
Much of the problem is centered in the region’s four cities, considered suburbs of the larger Boston metropolitan area. According to the latest Census department statistics, 71 percent of those in poverty in our North Shore communities live in Salem (25 percent), Beverly (17 percent), Peabody (16 percent) and Gloucester (13 percent). That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges elsewhere — towns such as Danvers, Topsfield and Marblehead have also seen a rise in poverty.
The change, spurred by shifts in the job market, increased immigration and an uncertain housing market, reflects a nationwide trend. American suburbs now have a larger — and faster growing — poor population than big cities or rural areas. Those communities are often ill-equipped to deal with the new reality, and there is relatively little attention paid to the topic on a state or federal level.
“I don’t think we’re talking about poverty much any more,” Casey said last week.
Fortunately, there is a conversation taking place on the North Shore. Last week, the United Way, the North Shore Community Development Coalition and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council convened a forum on the issue. “Confronting Poverty on the North Shore” brought together local, state and national experts, ranging from researchers and authors to front-line workers in local anti-poverty agencies.
Most agreed on the challenges laid out by Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution, author of “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America”:
Limited transportation options for those in poverty make it difficult to find and keep decent jobs;
A ‘strained’ local safety net limits how well local agencies can meet the needs of their citizens. The issue is compounded by “uneven” philanthropy, which makes it difficult to deal with current problems or needs or plan for the future;
Overburdened suburban schools are seeing the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch grow faster than in big cities.
The biggest challenge, however, may be in the antiquated response to the problem. Suburban communities are often focused too narrowly on the issues within their own borders, and are slow to take up a unified approach to a solution.
“We need to get out of our silos,” said Jackie Giordano of the North Shore CDC.
Combatting suburban poverty on the North Shore requires a regional approach, with local agencies sharing innovative ideas, collaborating whenever possible and working together to convince the federal government to shift at least some money to the suburban cities many of us call home.
The effort also requires a commitment to use data in problem-solving, both to identify the areas of greatest need — and greatest potential for change — and to make sure resources are allocated properly and money is being spent properly.
As many of the attendees at last week’s forum pointed out, lasting solutions also involve listening — thinking of those suffering the effects of poverty as partners in problem solving, rather than clients.
If, as many said, part of the problem is a lack of collective effort, last week’s forum was a good start, setting a path toward a regional solution.