Confronting Suburban Poverty in Park Forest, Illinois

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  • February 05, 2014

We are pleased to share with you a recent review of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America by Mayor John Ostenburg of Park Forest, IL, a suburb in South Cook County facing rising poverty. In it, Mayor Ostenburg connects the challenges presented in the book to the experiences his community is facing:

Thirty years ago, few would have envisioned the day in Park Forest when one of its churches would operate a food pantry that feeds approximately 350 local families per week. But that’s what St. Irenaeus Church does today.

Likewise, few would have thought it necessary for two local churches to provide homeless shelter twice a week from October through April, but today both St. Irenaeus and Holy Family Church do just that through participation in the PADS program.

And who, thirty years ago, would have believed that it one day would be necessary for Habitat for Humanity to renovate Park Forest homes that had gone into foreclosure and disrepair, and subsequently make those homes available to families in need of housing, giving them the opportunity to use “sweat equity” as a part of their down-payment? But that’s happening right now.

The reality is, poverty has come to the suburbs.

That’s the basic message of a book by Brookings Institution researchers Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube. Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is the result of their research in major municipal regions across the nation. It presents the startling conclusion that “today more Americans live below the poverty line in the suburbs than in the nation’s big cities.”

At the outset of their text, Kneebone and Berube draw an illustration that could be a picture of early Park Forest.

“In many ways, suburbs have been central to the particular brand of the American dream that developed rapidly after World War II. Moving to suburbia signaled a step up—a house with a yard, a car to drive to work, good schools, and safe streets.”

Wasn’t that what William H. Whyte was writing about in the chapters of The Organization Man that focused on Park Forest?

But today, in many ways, Park Forest is illustrative of a different type of American suburb, the one Kneebone and Berube are talking about when they write the following.

“The economic tumult of the 2000s not only helped propel the size of America’s poor population to record levels but also contributed to its broadening geographic reach. Rising poverty touched all kinds of communities around the country, moving well beyond the declining and at-risk suburbs.”

The Brooking researchers not only document how, and to what extent, poverty has increased in suburban America, but also point out that the major programs intended to address issues of poverty now are fifty years old, having been born of the “Great Society” legislation signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, they also explain that the great majority of those programs remain concentrated in the inner city, far removed from where an increasing need for them exists today.

But all is not doom and gloom. The Brookings folks point to a number of activities that have occurred in communities across the U.S. as local leaders seek to find ways out of the poverty malaise. The key to the success of these efforts, they say, is collaboration. Two of the primary examples they reference are found right here in Chicago’s south suburbs.

“To the south of Chicago, stretching into suburban Cook and Will counties, lies a series of suburban municipalities collectively referred to as the Chicago Southland, including the likes of Blue Island, Dolton, Harvey, Lansing, Park Forest, and South Holland,” they write. “As manufacturing and steel jobs began to disappear in the 1970s, many of these communities experienced income declines and poverty increases more typical of the city’s South Side than of its suburbs.”

But, they continued, under the auspices of the South Suburban Mayors & Managers Association (SSMMA), two entities have emerged that are seeking solutions to the loss of jobs, the need for workers to be re‐trained, and the challenge of deteriorating housing conditions. One is the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation (CSCDC) and the other is the Chicago Southland Housing & Community Development Collaborative (CSHCDC).

“The [Southland] suburbs joined forces around issues such as municipal management and planning, bond issuance and purchasing, brownfield remediation, public safety, infrastructure, and transportation,” Kneebone and Berube write. “As the foreclosure crisis began to strike, they turned again to this model to access the first wave of Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funding—emergency assistance for state and local governments aimed at stabilizing home values in neighborhoods hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.”

I’ve had the opportunity to serve on two panel discussions regarding the work of the Brookings researchers—with Kneebone in a program at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago, and with Berube in a session at the National League of Cities Congress of Cities in Seattle—and I have found both of them to be realistic about the economic decline that has hit so many American suburbs, but also optimistic about the opportunities we have to put things right. This book details their thinking. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to see America’s suburbs thrive once again.

Mayor John Ostenburg

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