Patrick Healy, Fabian Rodriguez
New research revealed that more people are living in the suburbs than in the cities. Poverty is also on the rise in the suburbs, possibly because the suburbs host more affordable housing, and it's also where there are more low-wage jobs. Patrick Healy reports from Irvine for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on May 20, 2013.
Dulce Morales, a working mother of four, enjoyed the suburban lifestyle in Orange County.
"When I was married, I was pretty well off," she said.
Then her marriage collapsed, a two-income household shrunk to one, and she found herself and her children living in a motel.
"I lost completely everything I had," she said.
She and her children had plunged into the ranks of the suburban working poor, a plight that is no longer as unusual as it once was, according to "Confronting Surburban Poverty in America," a new book published by the Brookings Institution.
Among the book's conclusions: There are now more Americans living below the poverty line in suburbs than in urban centers.
Historically, the poor have clustered in major cities and rural outposts. President Lyndon Johnson traveled to Appalachia when he launched his "War on Poverty" in the mid-1960s. It was the expanding middle class that populated the post World War II suburban boom.
But the 1980s marked a turning point, said co-author Alan Berube. New job opportunities, and the increasing availability of affordable housing, among other factors, created opportunities for lower income levels that had previously been priced out of the suburbs.
Poverty rates in the suburbs were already increasing when the crash of the housing market, the credit crunch, and the recession dragged down millions of Americans who had been living middle class lives in the suburbs.
Meantime, urban redevelopment projects and gentrification have brought more affluent residents back into urban centers in many cities, including Los Angeles.
As the economy continues recovering, Berube believes poverty rates -- both urban and suburban -- will drop, but not change the balance.
"I think suburban poverty -- the majority of poor people living in suburbs -- is a trend that's here to stay," Berube said.
Berube and collaborator Elizabeth Kneebone poured through mountains of statistics compiled by the US Census Bureau, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other sources.
They found that from 2000-2011 in the urban LA-Orange County Area, as the statistics-keepers define it, the number of poor has increased 4.5 percent, only a fraction of the 16.7 percent in suburban areas of the counties.
Even with the trend, for most metro areas, the percentage of residents living in poverty remains higher in the urban areas.
The counties of LA and Orange count a total of nearly 2.2 million people living below the poverty line, 22.4 percent of those in the cities, 14.1 percent of those in the suburbs.
In some suburbs, the increase in poverty numbers has been largedly due to population growth.
The federal definition of suburban does not exactly match the common colloquial usage.
For example, the San Fernando Valley is often considered a suburb of the city of Los Angeles, even though it's within the city limits.
But the federal definition labels every neighborhood within the cities of LA, Long Beach, and Santa Ana as urban, and everything else in the two counties as suburban, including Santa Ana's neighbor Anaheim, even though Anaheim has the larger population.
The numbers were even starker in what is considered the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metropolitan area. In those cities, since 2000, the number below the provery line increased 46.7 percent; in the suburban Inland Empire, 62.8 percent.
In the Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura Metro area, urban poverty increased 26.9 percent, compared to 45.9 percent in suburban Ventura County.
But the increases in Southern California were not as large as in the nation as a whole, where the the number of poor living in suburbs grew 67 percent.
One of the conclusions the authors make is that poverty programs need to have a presence in suburban areas.
Some have already been established. In Orange County, Irvine-based Familes Forward dates back to the early 1980s.
Familes Forward saw a dramatic increase in demand for its housing and food programs in 2008, said Margie Wakeham, its executive director.
Since then, the need has stabilized, but has not dropped, Wakeham said.
The nonprofit provides groceries to more than 100 Orange County families a week.
To help meet demand, Families Forward last month moved into larger quarters.
The organization also provides housing assistance to 40 families, among them Dulce Morales and her children.
With assisstance, she was able to move from the motel to a two-bedroom apartment in Irvine that ordinarily rents for $2,200 a month. However, her year of subsidy ends next month, and the Irvine rent will return to full price -- something Morales cannot afford.
She's giving up on suburban Orange County, and plans to move her family to a small city in the Pacific northwest.