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Pockets of severe poverty intensify and spread around Tampa Bay area


Derrick Lewis lives in the hardest-hit slice of the Tampa Bay area. The poverty rate here jumped nearly threefold from 15 percent to 40 percent over the past decade, the cusp of what's considered extreme poverty. Lewis, 50, considers himself lucky. He juggles a nighttime security guard job and a morning job making biscuits at Hardee's, enough income to pay his landlady $250 to $275 every couple of weeks. Around the corner from his one-bedroom apartment lies a couple of boarded-up apartments, vacated after their latest residents were caught selling drugs. "I feel bad for them," he says. "You see it in tough times. A lot of people that never would have thought of doing something illegal before. Instead of being homeless, they do what it takes." This isn't the inner city. It's the suburbs.

In a far-reaching analysis released Thursday, the Brookings Institution compared poverty rates in U.S. Census tracts in 2000 to their average poverty rates between 2005 and 2009. Among the report's chief conclusions: Poverty is growing twice as fast in suburbs than in cities.

Call it the suburbanization of poverty.

"Our suburbs are growing faster than our cities, but it's not just that," said Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate with Brookings who worked on the analysis. "The poor population overall is growing faster … in the suburbs."

The phenomenon is driven in part, Kneebone said, by poorer residents moving toward suburbia because that's where the jobs are, particularly in retail. It's also the aftermath of prolonged job and wage stagnation in which some suburbanites who used to be classified as middle class or lower middle class lost ground.

The part of Thonotosassa where Lewis lives saw the single-biggest jump in people living at or below the poverty rate (currently an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four).

Other suburban and rural pockets, however, weren't too far behind.

Part of Wimauma, a sprawling community with 31 subdivisions, saw its poverty rate jump from 11.8 percent to 28.4 percent since 2000. A similar boost occurred in neighborhoods in north Largo and the outskirts of Clearwater.

Some of the poorest of the poor live in a pair of neighborhoods north of hectic Fowler Avenue and just east of Nebraska Avenue, a patchwork of rusty mobile homes and aged apartments hidden from view from the restaurants, sports bars and retail sites that dominate the scene near the University of South Florida.

The two adjacent neighborhoods, both classified by the U.S. Census as suburban, are the Tampa Bay area's latest addition to the "extreme poverty" category, a label for Census tracts where the poverty rate is 40 percent or higher. That brings the bay area up to 11 extreme poverty places. The previous nine were are all inside city limits of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

Barbara Oliver moved to an apartment here off 131st Avenue for one reason: "The rent is a lot cheaper out this way."

On disability because of a bad back, Oliver, 55, figures she saved about $300 a month by relocating from South Tampa. Every day, she looks for ways to save money.

She raised her voice to be heard over carnival music blaring from an ice cream truck slowly cruising through the apartment complex's parking lot, trolling for customers.

"I don't know how he can get that much business out here," she said. "They're too expensive."

Kneebone of the Brookings Institution said she's most concerned about more suburban areas falling into levels of highly concentrated poverty. Extremely poor areas tend to be saddled with the added burdens of fewer job opportunities, lower-performing schools, higher crime rates and more public health problems.

At least 2.2 million more Americans now live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. That translates to 15 percent of the population in high-poverty neighborhoods, the highest concentration since 1990.

In the Tampa Bay area, nearly 50,000 people now live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or higher. That's up more than 19,000 people from a decade ago. Almost all the growth, about 17,000 of those added residents, live in the suburbs.

In an about-face, some of the most improved neighborhoods in the bay area are close to the urban core, areas that have been targets of revitalization.

The most-improved award goes to a neighborhood just north of the revitalized Ybor City area near downtown Tampa, where the poverty rate dropped from 42 percent to 13 percent.

Other top performers included Tampa's Ridgewood Park and St. Petersburg's Bartlett Park, which both posted a double-digit percentage drop in poverty rates.

Those improvements aside, the urban core is still home to the most intense poverty.

In fact, the second-fastest-growing impoverished neighborhood in the bay area — and the poorest overall — lies about 2 miles from downtown Tampa. Here, directly across the Hillsborough River from Ridgewood Park, the poverty rate jumped from an already-high 68 percent to a startling 86 percent over the decade.

'There just aren't any jobs'

The Brookings report tells only part of the story. Its 2009 data stop short of examining the aftermath of the Great Recession.

More recent Census estimates suggest the concentrated poverty rates in metro areas nationwide rose by 3.5 percentage points in 2010 alone, with Sun Belt metros socked by some of the steepest increases.

JoEllen Buzbee, one of Thonotosassa's newest residents, will attest that it's getting worse.

Buzbee, 40, recently moved here from Delaware in search of work. She's living with her son and daughter-in-law and watching their three children — two toddlers and a newborn — as her job hunt continues. A former machine operator who once ran her own business, she's looking for something in telemarketing.

Many of her new neighbors, Buzbee quickly discovered, are in the same boat. "A lot of people here don't work," she said, "because there just aren't any jobs."

Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.

Changes in poverty in Tampa Bay

Seven of the 10 largest increases in the poverty rate in Tampa Bay came in suburban and rural areas, a new Brookings Institution analysis of U.S. Census data indicates. In contrast, several urban areas saw poverty levels fall over the last decade. In red areas, the poverty rate worsened, and in green areas it improved.

Pockets of severe poverty intensify and spread around Tampa Bay area 11/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 3:36pm]
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