Make fighting poverty a top priority in 2012

Solutions to reducing poverty in Minnesota and particularly in suburban communities will challenge local and state leaders in 2012.

The recession is taking its toll in the suburbs where it once was thought the middle class was enjoying the good life. The financial plight of suburban residents is less visible, because many are too proud to admit their need for help.

According to census figures, 197,000 suburban residents are living below the poverty line, compared to 90,000 in the year 2000.

Researchers tell that in 2008,  56 percent of the Twin Cities Metro Area’s poor lived in the suburban area compared to 46 percent in the year 2000. (The poverty line is considered to be $11,344 for individuals and $22,113 for a family of four.)

The demand for food at suburban food shelves has never been greater and is growing. Percentages of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches at public schools continues to mount.

Loss of jobs and mortgage foreclosures are forcing residents out of their homes and into apartments.

Lenders are restricting their loans and Realtors in some communities are steering people of color from areas where white people own homes.

A legislative committee to end poverty in Minnesota by 2020 has issued a report with recommendations.

There is a role for communities to play, but first the leadership needs to be aware of the growing areas of poverty in their midst and what can be done about it.

Many suburban communities in the country have commissioned Stable Integration Boards which monitor lending restrictions to people of color and to how and where realtors direct home-buyers.

There is no such board in the entire Twin Cities Metro Area. City councils should investigate the idea, or perhaps commission a task force to monitor the evolution of poverty in their towns.

Mryon Orfield, who has written books about the development of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area, notes that no one is monitoring how poverty in communities is growing and what is being done about it.

He says community leaders should be certain that students have access to good elementary schools. They should be sure the housing codes are being enforced. Leaders should pay attention to how Realtors are representing all areas of the city as they sell homes.

Orfield is a professor of law at the Hubert Humphrey Institute and executive director on race and poverty.

Mayors and council members should push for more affordable housing.

Orfield says the Metropolitan Council should renew its program of providing  more funds for affordable housing, as it did successfully from 1970 to 1985.

Some will say let the private sector create jobs unabated and the problem of poverty will take care of itself.

While that has some validity, a partnership of business, the faith community, government and non-profits is needed to alleviate poverty in this state. — Don Heinzman