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In suburban America, middle class begins to confront poverty

America's middle class struggles as family members lose jobs, run out of savings and sink toward poverty. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

By Izhar Harpaz
Dateline NBC 

BOULDER, Colo. – The small communities that dot the picturesque mountain landscape outside Boulder, Colo., conjure up an image from long before the great recession. Here the manicured lawns and expensive cars are a testament to the achievements of a fiercely independent and educated middle class; a 21st century version of suburban bliss. But often these days, the closed doors of well-kept houses hide a decidedly different reality: hushed conversation about food stamps and Medicaid, depleted bank accounts and 401K’s, kitchen shelves stocked with groceries from food pantries.

Credit: Amelia Holowaty Krales

"It's this dirty little secret,” said Joyce Welch, a stay-at-home mother of three whose husband, a mechanical engineer, lost his job six months ago. “Everybody is supposed to be able to buy the new car, supposed to buy the new house. And what we don't talk about is people who struggle, and they're struggling more and more."  The Welch family lives in Superior, a Boulder suburb that was listed by Money Magazine as one of the “Top 20 best places to live in America” in 2011. Neighboring Louisville was ranked number one.

The evidence that times are rough for many suburban middle class families is not merely anecdotal.  For Dateline NBC’s upcoming special “America Now: Lost in Suburbia,” airing Sunday, June 24th at 8pm/7c, Boulder County's Department of Housing and Human Services provided the number of Louisville and Superior residents that relied on public safety nets to make ends meet.  And while these affluent communities still boast some of the lowest poverty levels in Colorado, the statistics were nonetheless startling: since 2008 the combined number of families on Medicaid more than doubled, as did the number of people utilizing food assistance.  Lafayette, another well-to-do suburb in East Boulder County experienced similar increases. 

And it isn’t just happening in Boulder County.  A 2011 study by the Brookings Institute revealed that for the first time in United States history there were more poor people living in the suburbs than in cities. The research, based on the most recent United States Census data, showed that a record 15.4 million suburban residents lived below the poverty line last year, up 11.5% from the year before, and  that “by 2010, suburbs were home to one-third of the nation’s poor population—outranking cities (27.5 percent), small metro areas (20.5 percent), and non-metropolitan communities (18.7 percent)."  

The Brookings Institute study examined the percentage change of suburban poor populations between 2000 and 2010 in the 95 largest metro areas in the US.  It found that in 16 of them the suburban poor population more than doubled during that time. The Denver metro area which includes some Boulder suburbs saw an increase of 96.4%. And while many of the suburban poor are newly arrived immigrants or transplants from the inner cities, a significant number are formerly middle class families who have fallen victim to the most recent recession.    

The need for help may transcend any published statistics. Sarah Nelson, the program director at the Sister Carmen Community Center, a non-profit organization in Lafayette, Colorado, that provides financial assistance to low-income families in East Boulder County, said that Sister Carmen’s share of clients from Louisville and Superior rose from four percent in 2010 to a whopping twenty-two percent by the end of 2011. Many of these formerly middle-class families, Nelson said, have struggled under the radar and have not accessed public assistance programs:  "Their resources are drained.  They've utilized all of their savings, all of their retirement funds.  Their unemployment's run out.  They've gotten as much help from family and friends as they possibly can.  And we're their last resort.”

Joyce Welch’s financial stress was exacerbated by the medical bills for one of her children, who suffers from a debilitating chromosomal disorder; the out-of-pocket costs of almost $30,000 a year had left the family with no savings.  So she saw no choice but to turn to Sister Carmen for assistance.  It was, she said, one of the most difficult things she has had to do in her life. “To have to actually vocalize, ‘I can't do the basics.  I have to have help.’  That is something that is just hard… I want to be able to do it on my own. I want to be the one to help others, not the one who has to ask for help.”  But with her husband’s unemployment check as the family’s only source of income, Joyce has joined the at least three and half million suburbanites who have fallen below the U.S. poverty line since 2007. She did what she felt she had to do for her three children; sign up for Medicaid and Food Stamps. Sister Carmen offered to supplement her food shopping with monthly visits to their food pantry, so that Joyce could shift some money she would have otherwise spent on food to other important bills. Reluctantly, Joyce agreed. 

Boulder County’s Department of Housing and Human Services has tried to reach out to struggling formerly middle class families like the Welches before they hit rock bottom. "Safety nets are historically built to try to catch people right before they hit the pavement,” said HHS director Frank Alexander, "if we can get people before they fall we can serve a lot more people in a lot better way and we don't have to just clean up the mess on the street."

According to Alexander, helping a family in need with their mortgage or rent payments may cost the county in excess of $10,000 in temporary “front end” assistance, but if that money prevents homelessness and all its associated economic and social ills it can save the county much more than that. "We know that if a senior who's trying to live independently in the community ends up in a nursing home, that that shifts cost to $75-85,000 a year. We know that if a family's in a home and they get foreclosed upon, it costs us almost $80,000 as a community with that home being foreclosed upon.  And the interventions that we can do as a human service system with our community partners are much less costly.  The time duration is much more limited.  And the outcomes for the families and individuals are much better.”

Boulder County has signed up non-profit organizations like the Sister Carmen Community Center to be conduits for some of its front-end services. With the center’s help Joyce Welch and her family qualified for county rent assistance until August 2012, enough time, Joyce hoped, for her husband to find a job that will get the family back on their financial feet.  But for now, she has begrudgingly accepted that she has become a new and different statistic of poverty in America.

“People like me are on food stamps. It’s people who want to go to work and can’t find work and don’t have an alternative,” she said, drawing an invisible square around her face, “I am the face of food stamps in 2012.  I'm the face of Medicaid in 2012. I don’t like it, you know, I don't sit there and wanna scream it from the mountaintop.  But this is reality.  This is my reality.  This is the reality for more and more people in America."

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Watch the full Dateline report 'America Now: Lost in Suburbia' airing Sunday, June 24th, at 8pm/7c.