Out of Sight, Out of Mind

In our minds, the suburbs are the most unlikely places to find real suffering. To be sure, the entertainment industry has populated those leafy landscapes, tucked away between rural poverty and urban blight, with the anxieties of desperate housewives, unfaithful husbands, lonely children and disappointed dreams – but not the anguish and fears of the desperately poor.

But a new report by the Brookings Institution reveals that “the largest and fastest-growing population of poor people in the U.S. is in the suburbs.”

Overall, the report showed that from 2000 to 2008, the number of poor people in the U.S. grew by 5.2 million, reaching nearly 40 million, 15.4 percent increase. That still does not include figures from 2009, when joblessness and foreclosures skyrocketed. But the key finding: “Suburbs gained more than 2.5 million poor individuals, accounting for almost half of the total increase in the nation’s poor population since 2000.” (See Bob Herbert in The New York Times, “They Still Don’t Get It.”)

We tend to see the disturbing sights of the “other” elsewhere, where we assume they belong – that is, if we see them at all. Perhaps that is why the plight of the poor has dropped out of our collective consciousness. It doesn’t fit with our stereotypes of an ideal, protected enclave, the winding streets, cul de sacs and lawns.

Some of us may have occasionally seen day-laborers standing on suburban street corners hoping for work, or vacancy signs in store windows on main street, or in malls. These are the clues to what we don’t know we know about the widespread effects of this Great Recession.

But the Brookings report makes it clear that they are signs of something real. No place is immune.