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Suburban plight; Poverty isn't a primarily urban problem anymore -- according to the 2010 census, most of the poor in Western New York make their homes in the city's suburbs.

Buffalo may be one of the poorest cities in America, but a majority of the region's poor now live in suburbia.

Of the 159,000 people in the region living below the poverty line, more than half -- 52 percent -- reside in the suburbs of Erie and Niagara counties, according to an analysis of 2010 census data by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Ten years ago, it was 44 percent.

The economy is a major factor behind the emergence of poverty in the suburbs. Also playing a role are the trend of people leaving the city, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, the growth of low-wage service jobs and the aging population, experts say.

"Poverty, like Americans themselves, has moved to the suburbs," said Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which issued the report. "It was a trend under way for a long time, and the recession accelerated it."

The fact that poverty is becoming as much a part of the suburbs as SUVs and soccer leagues comes as no surprise to those who deal with elderly populations in Amherst and Cheektowaga.

Or those who see families on the edge of homelessness in the Town of Tonawanda.

Or those who run food pantries in Clarence and Orchard Park, two of the region's wealthier towns.

At the Tabernacle Food Pantry in Orchard Park, Cindy Cafarella used to have a half-dozen or so emergency "walk-ins" a month.

These days, she said, "I get 10 to 12 per day."

The demographic of people seeking food at the Tabernacle -- one of the Southtowns' few pantries -- has changed dramatically, too, she said.

The pantry's main clientele used to be senior citizens, disabled people and people struggling with addictions.

Now, they are joined by formerly middle-class people who have lost their jobs.

"I have people with master's degrees who have no job, and they're coming in for food," Cafarella said. "The face of hunger has definitely changed."

She wondered aloud: "This is America?"

Even churches on the East Side of Buffalo have had suburban residents at their doors, desperate for help with feeding and clothing their families.

"We're getting calls from people all over Western New York," said the Rev. Joseph Moreno, parish priest at St. Lawrence Church on East Delavan Avenue. "They're families that have lost their jobs, ran out of unemployment and, already, they've maxed out their credit cards. They are literally going from food pantry to food pantry just to feed their families."

A couple of weeks ago, a couple from a Northtowns suburb approached the priest for help. Both the husband and wife had lost their jobs and had sent resumes all around the country in a desperate effort to find work.

"In the meantime, they have three kids," Moreno said.

The wife was mortified to have to ask for help.

"I told her: 'Don't be embarrassed.' But the wife, she just broke down and cried," said the priest, who helped get the family groceries.

"Before it was the working poor," Moreno said. "When the gas went up, they couldn't afford to go to work. Now it's the middle-class professionals. Now, they are the unemployed poor. That's what we're seeing now. It's so hard for them. When you're comfortable and then things fall apart, then you've got to start asking for help. People just break down and cry in front of us."

>Suburbs lack resources

It's not that things are getting better in the City of Buffalo. Poverty remains a major problem within city limits, where nearly a third of the residents are under the federal poverty line -- calculated as $22,113 a year for a family of four.

But, increasingly, people in the suburbs are falling below the poverty line, too.

Carol Dankert, Erie County's director of social services, points to statistics on people who receive public assistance, food stamps or Medicaid.

Back in 2004, the number of county residents living outside the city who received such aid was 70,000.

In 2011, it is now 108,000 -- a 54 percent increase.

During the same period, city dwellers receiving aid went from 150,000 to 194,000 -- a 29 percent increase.

So far, no new programs or services are being offered specifically to deal with poverty in the suburbs, Dankert said.

But, she said, the Brookings Institution study is generating talk about what may need to be done. The county may begin looking at ways to better serve the suburban poor through community centers that offer multiple services at a single location, like those found in the city.

"You may see a conversation around the suburbs," she said.

Poverty experts blame several factors for the rise in suburban poverty.

The economic downturn is a major factor, they all agree.

While below the national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, Western New York has lost its share of jobs. Back in September 2007, the unemployment rate for the Buffalo Niagara region was 4.6 percent -- or 26,700 people, said Jon Slenker, labor market researcher for the state Department of Labor. As of this September, the rate is 7.3 percent, with 42,000 people unemployed, Slenker said.

Then there are the workers who are underemployed at low-paying service jobs, which tend to be in the suburbs.

About a third of Western New York's workforce is in the service industry, said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo-based think tank. "Home health aides, teacher's assistants, bus aides, retail clerks, sales assistants, landscapers and security guards. The median wages for all those jobs are at or near poverty level," he said.

>Old trend, new problem

The shift of poverty to the suburbs also is a reflection of the general trend of people leaving cities, experts said.

People in poverty, just like those with higher incomes, are "using the same considerations and deciding it's a better choice for them," Magavern said.

But while suburban living may provide the poor with access to safer neighborhoods, better schools and proximity to a job, it also puts them farther from social services, nonprofits and philanthropies that are experts in helping the poor.

It's a problem the suburbs are unaccustomed to dealing with on a growing scale, but one they must now face.

"You have all these tiny places that just don't have the resources or the expertise or the recognition of the issues they're confronting," said Berube of the Brookings Institution.

Berube analyzed 2010 figures recently released by the Census Bureau and found incomes dropped in 91 of the 100 largest metro areas between 2000 and 2010, while poverty rose in 88 of the 100.

He also found a shift of poverty to the suburbs throughout the United States. Metro Buffalo is no exception.

The poverty rate rose from 6.4 to 7.6 percent in Amherst, where officials are noticing more senior citizens in need.

The rate rose from 6.5 to 9.7 percent in Cheektowaga, where a quarter of those living in poverty are children and a rising number of residents are contending for federal funds used to help low- to moderate-income households fix up their homes.

"We have a waiting list of probably 250 to 300 people right now," said Jerome J. Gabryszak, the town's director of community development. "Up until about five years ago, we didn't have a waiting list."

The poverty rate rose from 6.9 to 9.8 percent in the Town of Tonawanda, which received federal stimulus money for a homeless-prevention program that provides temporary housing assistance for residents.

"We were wondering if we would even take the money to develop a program," said Jim Hartz, director of community development for the town. "It turns out we ended up assisting over 600 people.

"When you think of a homeless person, you think of a person on the sidewalk panhandling," Hartz said. "But these are people that look like you and I. It was eye-opening."

But the community with the largest percentage increase in poor over the past decade was Clarence, where the share of people in poverty went from 2 percent to more than 5 percent.

"We see a lot of single parents, a lot of elderly," said Jim Owen, coordinator for the Clarence Community Pantry, which operates out of the Clarence Presbyterian Church.

>Pride gets in way

Fighting the stigma of poverty is one of the problems the suburbs face.

"You have to convince some people they need the help," Owen said. "They just feel, 'We live in Clarence. We should be able to afford our own food. We shouldn't admit that we need a food pantry.' "

At Evangelistic E's on Ellwood Place in Cheektowaga, a dozen people were lined up at the door before the food pantry opened last Wednesday morning.

They stepped inside, and each grabbed a slip of paper with nearly three dozen grocery items listed -- green beans, cereal, peanut butter and powdered milk, among others. They circled the items they wanted, then handed the slip to a volunteer who filled the order.

Donna Marchiano, 45, was among them. She has four children and will be off work from her job at a Cheektowaga collections agency while she recuperates from shoulder surgery to repair an old Army injury.

"If I don't have to come, I don't," Marchiano said of the food pantry, "but you can always use extra help as far as canned goods."

She talks about the rising cost of food.

"A lot of people get food stamps, but they don't raise those when the price of food goes up," she said. "You find a way to do it, one way or another."

Another was a 25-year-old single mother of three young children recently out of a domestic violence shelter.

"This helps a lot," she said, before carrying away her items. "At a certain point during the month, you run out of everything, and it's good to have a backup to fill in what you need."

Another was a 62-year-old woman who found work as a home care aide a few months ago, after being unemployed for a year and a half. She lives with her 40-year-old son.

"The canned goods come in handy, because you can do a lot with them, especially if you get the canned pork," she said. "It gets a little short on what you can buy at the market, even at the discount stores."

"I do financial intakes on these people, and you'd be horrified to see what some of them live on," said Janet Ensmenger, who runs the food pantry. "I just had a lady who sold her truck to pay the rent."

>Pantries help many

The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in the Town of Tonawanda started a pantry in 2008, just as the recession was getting going.

"There was a need outside the city," said Joanne White, chairwoman of the church pantry.

The church had always maintained an informal pantry, but it was never open on a regular basis. The new pantry is open on the third and fourth Saturdays of every month. "That's when people's food stamps would be running out," White said.

While she hasn't seen an increase in the number of people seeking help, White said the numbers have stayed constant.

"About 45 families a month," she said.

Carmaletta Zandi, executive director of the Evangel Food Pantry in Williamsville, said the downturn has brought a steady stream of people seeking help, many of them extremely reluctantly.

Many clients who come for help accept emergency boxes but are hesitant to sign up for the pantry program.

"They use [the emergency boxes] so they're not seen at the pantry," she said.

"They live in Williamsville," she said, and are embarrassed at having to admit to needing help to make ends meet.

Like Moreno at St. Lawrence Church, Sister Mary Johnice, who runs the Response to Love Center on Kosciuszko Street on the city's East Side, said her organization has helped more than a dozen suburban families over the last year.

"This is starting to happen," she said.

Several have come to the center's thrift store, and others get food from the pantry.

"I think it's a humbling experience" for those seeking help, Johnice said.

She recalled how a single mother from a suburban community recently brought her young daughter to the center.

"Am I poor?" the girl asked her mother, Johnice recounted.

The nun said she explained to the child that everyone is poor "in some way, and that's why we have agencies to respond."

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