Rows of neatly organized clothes on hand-made racks fill a second-floor classroom. A second room across the hall and lockers in the hallway quickly fill up with donations to be sorted and given away.
Jody McGee was there on a recent weekday rifling through the aisles, looking for summer outfits for her grandsons with her daughter, Julie, newly divorced with multiple health issues.
“This is a wonderful thing they’re doing here. It helps ease the burden a little bit,” she said.
McGee isn’t in Buffalo, the third-poorest city in the country. She’s at the Ken-Ton Closet in the Sheridan Parkside Community Center, in a neighborhood of modest tract-style homes in the northwest corner of the Town of Tonawanda.
Yes. You will find a lot of poverty in Buffalo’s suburbs, too.
The number of poor in the entire Buffalo Niagara metropolitan area grew from 120,861 in 1970 to 162,917 in 2011, despite steep population loss, according to an analysis by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
Perhaps most stunning, more than half – 52 percent – of this area’s poor reside in the suburbs, they say. The study defined poverty using the federal poverty threshold, which stood at $22,350 for a family of four in 2011, and counted everything outside of Buffalo in Erie and Niagara Counties as “suburban.”
That mirrors the national trends, Kneebone said.
“We typically see city and suburban poverty trends move together because they’re both part of the same regional labor market,” she said.
But, on the plus side, the region’s ability to weather the housing crisis and the recent recession better than other areas were perhaps factors that led to Buffalo Niagara ranking in the bottom quarter of the 95 metropolitan areas that report numbers, Kneebone said.
“That may help explain why the increases – though they did occur – didn’t happen at quite the same pace as we saw elsewhere in the county,” she said.
The growing number of poor in suburbs can be partly explained by a rise in low-paying retail jobs, loss of good paying manufacturing jobs and shifting availability of affordable housing, Kneebone said.
Since becoming Cheektowaga’s town supervisor in 2008, Holtz has focused on stabilizing the border neighborhoods – particularly keeping up the housing stock of those that share the 14215 and 14211 ZIP codes with the City of Buffalo.
In Cheektowaga, the poverty rate increased from 6.5 to 8.5 percent between 2000 and 2010, as the population decreased by more than 5,000 people, according to the Brookings data.
“We are never going to be a rich town,” Holtz said. “This is neighborhoods for your working class. Good, hard-working people that will never make $200,000 a year.”
In the Town of Tonawanda, poverty is concentrated in two neighborhoods – Old Town in the southwest bordering Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood, and Sheridan Parkside, said James Hartz, director of the town’s Department of Community Development.
Most of the town’s federal Community Development Block Grant funds – geared to help low income communities – and human service agencies target those areas, he said. But federal policy doesn’t always keep up.
While Tonawanda in 1978 received $1.5 million in its first year of Community Development Block Grant eligibility and was able to address a range of issues such as public infrastructure, housing and economic development, the town this year is expected to receive the same amount.
“The problem is that inflation has decreased the spending power of a dollar about 80 percent since 1978,” Hartz said.
So the town concentrates its limited block grant funding on loans for homeowners to maintain the town’s older housing stock through its residential rehab program. Hartz estimated that 80 percent of homes in the town were built prior to 1960 and said many poorer homeowners have deferred needed improvements such as roofs and siding.
Tim Kordela works full time at Moe’s Southwest Grill on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst for $8 an hour. His wife, Shannon, was recently laid off from her job at the Head Start program for low-income kids. Together they raise Shannon’s 17-year-old daughter, Savanna, in Sheridan Parkside, where two-thirds of residents live in or near poverty, according to a recent draft report by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute and the Mobile Safety-Net Team.
“With a car payment, rent and utilities, money’s stretched super thin,” said Kordela, 32, whose projected income this year would put him just above the federal poverty guideline for a family of three.
Dave Rojas, pastor at nearby New Covenant Tabernacle, said Kordela’s story is typical of the people he encounters in his Sheridan Parkside ministry – good, hard-working people struggling to make ends meet.
“The little that they have they pay their bills with and they’re struggling for food and other necessities,” he said.
Temporary assistance available through the Erie County Department of Social Services – to help meet expenses – is geared for those who can’t work, can’t find a job or are working a job that doesn’t pay enough.
Between September 2009 and this past March, there was an increase in temporary assistance cases in all of the first-ring suburbs and most of the second ring, according to data prepared by the department.
“Obviously, I think a lot of this is really driven by the economy,” said Carol Dankert-Maurer, the social services commissioner.
Hartz agreed that the face of poverty has changed in recent years.
“We always tend to think of a problem of elderly widows living on fixed Social Security and certainly there’s an element of that. But there’s more and more families – families with children – experiencing similar need either due to the economy from lost jobs or other circumstances,” said Hartz, who has been in his job for five and a half years. “It has been eye-opening.”
In Tonawanda, 7,750 of the town’s 73,812 residents live on incomes under the federal poverty level, according to a draft report by the Mobile Safety-Net Team, which was created in 2009 by the John R. Oishei Foundation.
An additional 10,455 town residents live on incomes 100 to 200 percent of the federal poverty line.
The Safety-Net team is also doing reports on other communities in Erie and Niagara counties.
In all, 38 agencies provide a range of services to residents, and the Kenmore-Tonawanda School District is the town’s single largest human services support asset, according to the Mobile Safety-Net report.
One useful measure of poverty levels is the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches at school.
In Kenmore-Tonawanda, that percentage increased from 27 percent in March of 2001 to 41 percent in March of this year even as enrollment declined from 9,414 to 7,317 during that time, according to data provided by the district.
In Sheridan Parkside, a mobile food truck once a month used to distribute perishable food such as milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables provided by the Food Bank of Western New York. But it was cut last year. It was serving between 35 and 50 people, Rojas said.
“I believe we really need that program back in there,” he said. “In fact, there’s an open enrollment in June when we’re going to try to get that program back because I know that’s a really big need.”
Beyond the first ring
But poverty isn’t just growing in distressed, inner-ring suburbs. It’s also touching places often thought of as immune, said Kneebone of Brookings.
Meanwhile, the percentage of the Town of Lancaster’s population living in poverty rose by 76.3 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to the study. The poor population increased from 1,491 to 2,269 people, but the townwide population also increased from 38,548 to 40,836.
Betsy Moll, director of the Trinity Food Pantry in Trinity Episcopal Church on Broadway, bears witness to the Lancaster residents behind those numbers. From her perspective, things took a turn for the worse in 2008. “We saw a steady, steady, steady increase in the numbers of people that we served,” Moll said.
Requests for assistance this year haven’t increased above 2012 levels; in fact, they may have dropped, she said.
To tackle the problems of housing, food and transportation that often lead to poverty, experts encourage existing agencies to collaborate.
“There really aren’t any coalitions that work collectively to address all basic human needs,” Pirrone said.
Kneebone points to a grass-roots collaborative model formed by the 280 jurisdictions in south and west suburban Chicago, which was particularly hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis.
“Instead of them trying to compete against each other for funding, two different collaboratives emerged to work together to attract federal funds,” she said.
But, in the end, she said, what’s needed to stem suburban poverty in America is good-paying jobs for a well-trained workforce. Dankert-Maurer, the social services commissioner, agreed with that assessment.
“Once upon a time, the jobs were in the city,” she said. “I think a lot of the entry-level positions are now outside of the city.”
Couple that with more affordable housing stock in the suburbs, she said, and “you see more and more folks moving to where the jobs are.”