From 2007 to 2009, the rate soared 31% in Riverside, San Bernardino, Ontario and environs. ‘These areas are on the front lines of the Great Recession,’ says the report’s author.

Half-built homes frame a deserted street in Hesperia in San Bernardino County. The recession showed itself early in the Inland Empire through the collapse of the housing market. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

October 8, 2010

Poverty is increasing in the Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario areas at one of the nation’s highest rates, a study released Thursday concluded.

The poverty rate in those sections of the Inland Empire surged about 31% from 2007 to 2009, according to research from the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

Companion research, also just released by Brookings, suggests that the social safety net in such fast-growing suburban areas is dangerously thin, compounding economic hardships.

Bakersfield also has been hard hit, with poverty increasing 23%.

“These areas are on the front lines of the Great Recession,” said Brookings senior research associate Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the study, which is based on census data.

The problem is not entirely cyclical, Kneebone said. In many areas, poverty climbed during the middle of the last decade, a period officially classified as one of economic growth.

Poverty exploded in many regions with the recession, which showed itself early in the Inland Empire through the collapse of the housing market.

Nationwide, the number of poor people in large metropolitan areas grew by 5.5 million from 1999 to 2009. More than two-thirds of that growth occurred in suburbs. In fact, by 2009, 1.6 million more poor people lived in the suburbs of the nation’s largest metro areas than in the cities, the study found.

This movement of the poor to suburbs poses an added challenge.

“The safety nets are much less developed,” Kneebone said. “They are stretched thin and patchier in terms of services that can be provided.”

Catholic Charities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties is getting at least 150 calls a day for housing assistance and 200 a day for help with food.

“The number of people requesting services has increased, but the dollars for us to deliver the services have been the same,” said Belinda Marquez, director of family and community services for Catholic Charities in Riverside County. “We have just been overwhelmed.”

Some economists pinpointed the official end of the nationwide recession in 2009, but that’s not the situation in Riverside, Marquez said.

“People need to answer our telephones for one hour and tell us the recession is over,” she said.

Since 2007, poverty rose in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana sector by 11%. Overall the poverty rate in the Los Angeles area is 14.8%; in the Riverside region it’s 15.4%, and in Bakersfield 22.2% of residents live in poverty.

At the same time, help from the state is diminishing because of budget cuts.

“There’s been a slow erosion of supports for low-income families, people with severe disabilities and for the elderly,” said Jean Ross of the Sacramento-based California Budget Project, which examines issues affecting low- and middle-income Californians. “And what’s also unfortunate is the scaling back of federal aid to the states at a time when the economy is so weak.”

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