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Sprawling and Struggling: Poverty Hits America's Suburbs

Tara Simons, left, and her daughter Alexis talk in their kitchen in West Hartford, Conn.
David Friedman | NBC News
Tara Simons, left, and her daughter Alexis talk in their kitchen in West Hartford, Conn.

Like many Americans who move to the suburbs, Tara Simons came to West Hartford, Conn., because she wanted her daughter to grow up in a nice, safe place with good schools.

Her fall from a more financially secure suburban life to one among the working poor also happened for the same reason it's happened to so many others. She had a bout of unemployment and couldn't find a new job that paid very well.

As a single mother, that's made it hard to hold on to the suburban life that is, in her mind, key to making sure her daughter gets off to the right start.

"I'm basically paying to say I live in West Hartford," she said. "It is worth it."

It's a struggle that many Americans bruised by the weak economy can relate to.

The number of suburban residents living in poverty rose by nearly 64 percent between 2000 and 2011, to about 16.4 million people, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of 95 of the nation's largest metropolitan areas. That's more than double the rate of growth for urban poverty in those areas.

"I think we have an outdated perception of where poverty is and who it is affecting," said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the research. "We tend to think of it as a very urban and a very rural phenomenon, but it is increasingly suburban."

Simons' situation is complicated by the fact she's a single mom. Poverty and financial insecurity among single moms is far higher than for households headed by single dads or two parents.

The rate of poverty among single mothers actually improved dramatically through the 1990s, thanks to a strong economy, more favorable tax breaks and the success of so-called welfare-to-work programs. But two recessions and years of high unemployment erased many of those gains.

Moving for a Better Life

Simons and her daughter Alexis moved from Massachusetts to West Hartford eight years ago because Simons had a job with a local rug retailer.

Alexis, now 14, made friends, became an avid lacrosse player and is now a high school freshman.

The picturesque suburb, with its well-kept homes and an upscale town center, has a median household income of $80,061, more than double that of Hartford itself, which is $29,107 according to the Census Bureau.

And yet the number of people needing help has skyrocketed in recent years, said Susan Huleatt, the human services manager for West Hartford.

About five years ago, Huleatt said a mobile van began coming to town once a month to distribute fresh produce to people in need. Now, four vans come each month, and more than 200 people sometimes line up for the food. That's in addition to the city's own food pantry.

Simons expected to work for the rug retailer until retirement, but about a year ago she quit after disputes with one of the two owners. She had never had trouble finding a new job and was unprepared for how hard it would be.

"I know that part of it is my fault and I absolutely take responsibility for that, but I never in a million years thought that I would (be in this position)," she said.

Simons went without work or unemployment benefits for five months before she got her current job about six months ago. The position, as a customer service representative for a local health products company, pays $14 an hour. That leaves her with take-home pay of about $460 to $480 a week, plus about $127 a week in child support. Simons has full custody of her daughter.

She is behind on her electric and gas bills and owes nearly $400 to her daughter's club lacrosse team, which has her worried that her daughter won't be able to play this spring.

Like many working poor people, she has fallen into a debt spiral. She took out an $800 payday loan, and she estimates that it will end up costing her $1,600 to pay it back. She also has several hundred dollars in credit card debt and has worked to pay off hundreds of dollars in bank overdraft fees. She's sold jewelry for cash.

(Related Story: JPMorgan Reining In Payday Lenders)

She and Alexis had to leave the house they were renting after she lost her job and a roommate. She got one-time aid from the city's crisis fund to help with the down payment for her new, cheaper apartment. Still, the $1,125 rent eats up more than half of her monthly take-home pay.

She went on Medicaid after being unable to afford health insurance.

Simons said it's been hard, and sometimes embarrassing, to accept help.

"The thing is, I don't want it," she said. "I want to pay my bills."

Hoping for a Break

Simons has continued to apply for jobs daily, hoping to land a higher-paying position with health insurance she can afford.

One morning in early March, she got a break. A rug retailer about 40 miles from West Hartford offered her a job interview.

Excited and anxious, Simons carefully picked out her clothes and fretted about her hair. She was too nervous to eat.

A few hours before the interview, her boyfriend Phil Volonis stopped by to give Simons some gas money. Her 2005 Chevrolet Cavalier had broken down the day before, so he had lent her a car.

Later that evening, Simons walked out of the interview confident that she had done well, but still not sure if she had gotten the job.

Driving home in the pouring rain, Simons said that while living in West Hartford has been good for her and her daughter, she dreams of moving somewhere warmer.

She mused that perhaps Alexis will go to University of Florida—which has a good women's lacrosse team—and she could move down there, too.

But for now, she said, she would do almost anything to keep her daughter in this town.

"The kid's been through enough," Simons said. "So, I just want her to feel as safe and settled as possible, and I want her to know that she can count on her mom to keep her where she is and keep promises."

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