David Usborne: Middle-class meltdown in suburbia

The sort of poverty normally associated with inner cities has spread to the places that epitomised the American Dream

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The late sun is touching the hanging moss on the oaks dotting the Cleveland Heights Country Club in Lakeland, Florida, with a tangerine tinge, and all looks well with this pocket of middle-class suburbia. The houses here are not grand, but they are nice, with driveways and garages – homes of the American Dream.

Living on streets like these – here they are surfaced with laid brick, not asphalt – is what most Americans have aspired to for generations. You've made it if the boy on the bike needs a strong arm to get the paper to your front door and your letters are popped not through a letter box but into a tin box atop a pole. It's why the speed at which America's suburban sprawl expanded became a measure of its economic well-being.

But the myth of the suburban idyll is coming apart. Ask Renee Sullivan, whose home on Glendale Street here is a golf-putt away from the Country Club but which this weekend stands out because of the baby cots, armchairs and other household flotsam piled on the lawn for sale. Her husband, Rick, lost his job with a local tile manufacturer in 2009, and, with seven kids, they are out of cash and packing up to leave.

"We have just about exhausted all of our options," Renee explained outside the house that has been home for 14 years. They are moving into a small apartment in what Renee calls "a poverty-stricken" neighbourhood across town. They hope to rent the house here for a little more than the mortgage payments.

"Never, ever, never," Renee, 44, says when asked if she could have imagined being in a bind like this, where she now collects food stamps to feed the family. They have been paying the mortgage with credit cards already loaded with debt. "It had to stop. We felt like the Lord was telling us, 'No more debt'."

The Sullivans have company. An analysis of recent census data by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, reveals that the suburbs and further-flung exurbs in the US today contain more people living below the poverty line than anywhere else, more than in remote rural areas and more even than in the inner cities, most normally associated with poverty. Poverty in suburban communities surrounding major cities grew by 53 per cent between 2000 and 2010, compared with 23 per cent among city dwellers.

"The growth has been stunning," notes Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of the study. "For the first time, more than half of the metropolitan poor live in suburban areas. We think of poverty as [a] really urban or ultra-rural phenomenon, but it's not. It's increasingly a suburban issue."

This is the America that the candidates for president will be fighting over next year. It is a country that to some degree has defined itself by the easy living in its suburbs. In the minds of the comfortable, poverty was an inner-city problem in need of attention and compassion, but entirely separate from their own lives. But that segregation of blight from contentment is coming apart now. It is their neighbours who are going to the soup kitchens these days, people just like them in background, and often in skin colour too.

Poverty in the US, "doesn't necessarily mean children starving in the streets and homeless people, although they are a small part of the poverty story," notes Shawn Fremstad of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "It is more about struggling, and running up debts, and cutting corners."

Like countless other cities in America, Lakeland and its sister city of Winter Haven, just to the east, have relatively small downtown cores surrounded by large swathes of shopping mall suburbia. According to Brookings, the two towns together rank number seven in the top-10 American cities with the highest suburban poverty rates. At 17.7 per cent, they are only just below Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida, with 18.6 per cent. Number one, with a 36.4 per cent suburban poverty rate, is El Paso in Texas.

If any of those top 10 have a chance to win serious attention in the 2012 presidential race, it should be Lakeland. It sits between Orlando and Tampa, bang in the middle of what political pundits call the I-4 corridor, after the interstate highway that connects the two larger cities. If Florida as a whole is perennially one of the most hotly contested states in election years, then this densely populated slice across the middle of it is where the temperature gets closest to boiling point. To prevail in Florida you have to prevail here.

The victory, if that's what it was, of George Bush in Florida in 2000, rested largely on the progress he made precisely here. Mr Bush made even greater inroads in this part of Florida in 2004. It became shared wisdom that the streets of prosperous suburbia – and of exurbia – were turning Republican everywhere, and for ever. But now that calculus seems outdated. The decay in American's suburbs will surely alter the mathematics in 2012. Who will benefit from the change will depend on who gets the blame for the recession, the Democrats, and especially Mr Obama, or the Republicans.

Renee Sullivan won't be drawn into politics. At least she and Rick have eluded foreclosure, the fate of so many American homeowners. Yet their story, or variations on it, is playing out on a thousand streets in a thousand cities. It was the collapse of the construction boom that did them in – Rick was one of 120 people laid off by Florida Tile on a single day. For others it might be not having health insurance when an illness strikes, or simply the elastic band of a family's finances just giving out and snapping.

Karen D'Mont, 37, a single mother, is another Lakeland resident who knows what it's like to have the floor open up beneath her. "My ends meet, mostly, but they don't overlap," she says, insisting that she wouldn't normally consider herself one of the country's poor. But when she was forced to pay $1,400 to have the transmission in her car fixed this summer, suddenly she couldn't pay the rent any more. "For something like that to happen is just devastating," she says, describing going to the United Way, a charity network to which she has been donating money for years, looking for some help for herself. They referred her to the Salvation Army, which paid a full month's rent and her finances, she says, are now on the mend.

Shelters and soup kitchens in this part of Florida consistently report about a 30 per cent increase in demand for their services over the past year. They add that almost all of the increase is accounted for not by the chronically homeless, as you might expect, but by people like Ms D'Mont, who never before would have dreamed of seeking help from a charity, who are not destitute as such but who are on the edge of a financial cliff. Sometimes a small subsidy is enough to bring them back, sometimes not.

"The first line of defence often is for them to go and stay with family, but usually that doesn't last very long," says Angelia Mosley, who runs Pinellas Hope, a Catholic Church-funded shelter in Clearwater, Florida, just west of Tampa, which houses men and women in 255 green tents set up on small wood platforms. The tents become blazing ovens in the summer, and the only comfort is a foam sleeping mat.

It is new-intake day when we meet, and Ms Mosley says she is just as likely now to see someone arriving in their own car – sleeping in your car is illegal here – as someone she would normally consider part of the homeless class. They may even have a job, but just not enough money to pay the rent or keep up with the mortgage. "It used to be that the automobiles parked outside the gates there were just ours," she notes.

"I never imagined this at all," admits Wayne Smith, 59, who was a mortician as well as a cameraman for ABC TV in Los Angeles before moving to St Petersburg, next door to Clearwater. There he worked managing restaurants, living with his wife in a "luxury apartment" until he was laid off in 2009. He left his wife, and, when $26,000 in savings had run out, sold the apartment and moved in with his mother. When that didn't work out, he found himself at Pinellas Hope. Recently he moved from a tent to one of the few one-room apartments available at the shelter that come with small kitchens and air conditioning. "Was I part of the middle class before this? Yes. I didn't have a lavish life, but I enjoyed the money."

Smith admits that his prospects of climbing back to where he was are slim, not least because of his age, regardless of what happens to the economy. As for the recession that helped tip him into this mess in the first place, he does know who he blames. It's not Obama or the Democrats. "Bush started all this," he says.


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