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Poverty surging in Twin Cities’ suburbs

In Maplewood, a charitable Angel Fund is buying shoes so a kindergartener can attend school. In Bloomington, the local food shelf is scrambling to meet soaring demand. And in Brooklyn Center, city officials approved a new ordinance to cope with the community’s abundance of vacant houses.

The Great Recession has hit most Twin Cities suburbs hard, and now fresh data is confirming what city, school and social-service officials have been observing close up: poverty in our metro-area suburbs is surging.

A new analysis of recently released U.S. Census numbers shows that the poverty rate in Minnesota’s suburban cities has risen to 7.6 percent in 2010 – an increase from 4 percent in 2000 and 5.8 percent in 2007.

Some suburban cities — Brooklyn Center, Crystal and Maplewood, among them – are experiencing significant gains in numbers of poor residents.

You can go directly to MinnPost’s interactive map showing suburb-by-suburb poverty numbers and other important information here.

Well over half — 56 percent — of the Twin Cities metro area’s poor population now live in the suburbs, compared to 46 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis of Census data conducted by Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution.

In 2000, there were close to 90,000 people living below the poverty line in the suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul. By 2007, just before the economy tanked, the number had risen to 147,000. According to 2010 Census data that number now stands at more than 197,000.

In other words, the number of suburban dwellers living below the poverty line jumped almost as much in the last three years during the Great Recession than it had in the previous seven.

(The poverty threshold, particularly in this time of rising prices, is sobering: $11,344 annual income for individuals and $22,113 for a family of four. Additionally, in Minnesota, about one million — one in four Minnesotans — are considered “near poor” with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty threshold.)

The same suburban poverty trend is true around the nation, where a majority of people now live in suburbs. After 2000, the poor population in U.S. suburbs increased by more than half. As a result, for the first time more than half of the metro poor now live in suburbs

Not all suburbs
But make no mistake, urges Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Race and Poverty and author of three books on metropolitan development, that though generally the suburbs are getting poorer, “It’s not all of them. It tends to be the older suburbs, suburbs not as strong financially, suburbs built for middle-income people, not wealthy people.

“Look at the inner ring suburbs, you can see they’re getting poorer faster,” he says, except for the wealthier suburban cities such as Edina and Mendota Heights, or better-off parts of suburbs such as West Bloomington. Those are remaining pretty economically secure, says Orfield, a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings, the Washington, D.C., think-tank that analyzed the poverty data.   

Orfield uses the numbers of children economically qualifying for free and reduced school lunch as a measurement of poverty and sees that parts of some suburban areas, such as Brooklyn Center, Richfield, East Bloomington andBrooklyn Park, are “on track to become much poorer than the central cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

As the recession has played out, suburban officials and social service agencies are seeing the results in terms of foreclosed homes and vacant properties, as well as rising need.

In the Maplewood school district, for instance, the Angel Fund stepped up to pay for a second pair of shoes for twin kindergartners so both could attend school on the same day. At first, each child attended school on alternate days because their mother had only one pair of shoes for her children to share.    

“The need has drastically increased, drastically increased,” says Marylee Abrams, who tells that story in connection with her position as board member of the charitable 622 Education Foundation for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, which funds the Angel Fund. Schools officials, she says, talk of homeless families living in their cars.

And Abrams says her church, North Haven in North St. Paul, this fall started stocking backpacks with macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and applesauce and sending them home on Fridays to tide poor school children over the weekend.   

Demand for social services
At Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP) in Bloomington, the largest food shelf in the state and a provider of other socials services as well, numbers are ballooning.

In 2006 VEAP, which also serves Edina, Richfield and south Minneapolis, provided food and economic support — such as help with mortgage or rent and car repairs — to 11,000 people. In 2010 the agency served 19,000 — not unexpected, considering in Bloomington the poverty rate in 2000 was 4 percent but increased to 10.6 percent in 2009. In Richfield, poverty numbers rose from 6.3 percent to 10.7 percent.

“We continue to break our own records,” says VEAP’s Executive Director Susan Russell Freeman.

For almost 40 years, VEAP has helped mainly the working poor, people with low-wage jobs working in the Bloomington-area hospitality industry, for example. But things are different now, Freeman says.

“More people who are living on the edge are having more problems,” she says. “[T[he moderate middle class is starting to murmur, to say some of this stuff isn’t right.”

Plus, financial donations to the agency are not keeping pace with increased need. “Donors are feeling the pinch or they’re scared,” she says.

The change is apparent, too, in the city halls of suburban cities, once the middle class’s escape from the problems of the urban core cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Brooklyn Center, a victim of some of the highest numbers of home mortgage foreclosures in the state, had to adopt a vacant building ordinance to deal with the housing crisis. And the city jumped onboard when the state offered additional tax revenues, plus partnered in the ReNew Buyer Incentive Program,  to provide down-payment and closing-cost assistance to those purchasing a foreclosed home, says City Manager Curt Boganey.  Poverty there rose from 7.4 percent to 14.1 percent.   

Other signs of troubled economy
In Bloomington, foreclosure rates have “hung around about 1 percent” of some 25,000 single family, duplex and townhomes every year since 2008, says Lynn Moore, the city’s code enforcer.  Still, there are signs of a troubled economy, foreclosures and job loss.

“We seem to be mowing more properties than we did five years ago. We certainly pick up a lot more refuse,” Moore says. She adds that more homes show signs of deferred maintenance, like the need of a coat of paint.

“It is a financial struggle for people,” agrees Maplewood City Manager Jim Antonen. “Certainly we can see a marked trend in our road and street projects.” Maplewood’s poverty rate jumped from 4.8 percent in 2000 to 11.4 percent, according to the most recent data.     

This year more Maplewood residents are claiming financial hardship when it comes to paying their share of street upgrades and are allowed to defer payment of those fees, Antonen says.  

Plus, “We’re trying to do more with less,” Antonen adds, explaining how a few years back a street rebuilding project likely would have gotten an “eight-cylinder” job, but now it will probably be “a six-cylinder” model.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by J'M S on 10/27/2011 - 11:39 am.

    This is so sad. Even sadder is that these communities have an opportunity here to create a base for assured present and future income by buying up these homes and then renting them out via section 8. Everybody wins. Those needing housing will be able to finally find affordable housing; the cities have guaranteed income, plus the legacy of continued ownership of practical assets.

    The ideal would be for all of these to be purchased or taken into a section 8 program that would give tenants ownership (Paid for in their calculated section 8 payments along with sec 8 contributions) and the “legitimacy” that comes of that and, once they have outlived the house, it is “paid for” and reverts back to city ownership to repeat the process. In such a posterity program, it give families a place to secure and establish themselves, guaranteed income to the city, and the perks of land ownership to all. There are so many people needing affordable housing that such a program as this would help address and relieve this.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Wright on 10/27/2011 - 12:02 pm.

    Professor Orfield will be speaking about the decline of the Twin Cities’ first-ring suburbs at the next Headliners event at the University of Minnesota: November 3, 7 p.m., St. Paul campus.

    A Q&A will follow his presentation.

    Details and tickets available at

  3. Submitted by kate seitz on 10/27/2011 - 01:02 pm.

    Thanks for the great piece! I hope that this new information will make its way to the folks trying to impose a tax on Ramsey County citizens to pay for a new Vikings Stadium.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/27/2011 - 08:41 pm.

    It’s a voluntary tax, kate. You can avoid it if you want to.

  5. Submitted by kate seitz on 10/28/2011 - 11:54 am.

    Dennis – I agree the tax is voluntary, in the sense that if I have transportation and the means to leave Ramsey County to make taxable purchases, I will avoid the tax. However, poverty can restrict a person’s ability to travel outside their community to make these taxable purchases. Therefore, the sales tax burden might fall more heavily on those less able to bear it.

  6. Submitted by Michele Olson on 10/29/2011 - 01:30 pm.

    Poverty and homeless in the suburbs is not a new phenomenon, as the staff at Dakota Woodlands in Eagan can tell you. It never fails to amaze me how readily people dismiss the facts; I guess it’s only human nature to want to feel safe and secure. If you don’t look anything like the typical homeless derelict living on the city street in the pictures, then you’re safe from the same thing happening to you or your kids.

    Many of the poor and the homeless have jobs; their income simply doesn’t cover the cost of housing and food and clothing and transportation. Why do they stay? Because it’s near their work, because they want their kids to have a decent education so they can do better. Because in spite of everything, they still believe in the American dream. All of these, and most importantly, because it’s home. I say importantly, because families going through financial crisis don’t need any more instability in their lives, and our overburdened social and justice systems don’t need that, either.

    I’m guessing that the more “stable” suburbs actually have a more effective way of pushing the financially less well-to-do OUT. It’s all a game of numbers, and it keeps their community more attractive to the up-and-comers who can continue to pay the high property taxes.

    I’d like to see more suburban communities acknowledge that the people who are serving their coffee and cleaning their floors and caring for their children deserve safe and affordable housing with a reasonable commute, rather than pushing their “problem people” into the cities.

  7. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 10/30/2011 - 01:33 pm.

    There is so much wrong with what Commenter Number One says I don’t know where to begin. Let me be brief. The government is broke. There aren’t enough of us people paying into the system to permanently finance all that housing. “Present and assured income? comes directly out of our pockets.

  8. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/30/2011 - 05:07 pm.

    Let’s not forget the big picture, here, folks. This is what happens when those at the top of the economic ladder use the political and economic influence their money buys them to rearrange the systems upon which we all depend so that much of the money that used to go to pay people who work for a living goes into the pockets of those wealthy folks,…

    while at the same time, reducing the rates of taxes on the ways they make their money (primarily capital gains).

    There is plenty of money to support the vast majority of people in our society in a middle class lifestyle, but the rug has been slowly being pulled out from under the middle class since the days of Ronnie Raygun because so much of that money has been sucked up into the pockets of the wealthy.

    At the same time that more people are living in poverty or near poverty, the legacy of Tim Pawlenty, continuing unabated under our current Republican-controlled legislature is that cities dealing with increasing poverty have FAR FEWER resources available to them.

    If the OWS movement doesn’t succeed in waking us up to what’s been done to the average citizen of the US by the fabulously wealthy, we are headed for nothing short of a revolution.

    When the old systems upon which we have depended offer NO hope of a decent life for average folks who have spent their entire lives playing by the rules (because all the rules were changed behind a smokescreen of “free market” economic theocracy), it’s only a matter of time before the “downtrodden” start to rewrite the rules in their own favor, following after the Wall Street model: by hook or, more likely by crook.

  9. Submitted by Michele Olson on 10/30/2011 - 08:46 pm.

    Post Number Seven, your post reminds me of my favorite line from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable: “Man overboard! Who cares? The ship sails on.”

    The government IS broke, as you say, and a great part of that is due to waging war for ten years and not collecting the taxes to pay for it.

    As you say, let me be brief: the poor pay taxes, too.

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