Augusta has made a Brookings Institution top 10 list, but it’s not exactly good news.
The Augusta metro area ranked ninth in the nation for areas with the highest suburban poverty rate, according to Brookings’ interpretation of 2010 U.S. Census data.
According to the analysis, 16.9 percent of people in the Augusta suburbs were living below the poverty line. Burke, Columbia, McDuffie, Aiken and Edgefield counties were considered suburbs of Augusta.
Mike Firmin is the executive director of Golden Harvest Food Bank, which has locations all over the Augusta metro area. He said he talks to people all the time from all over the area who say they never would have thought they would have to ask for help feeding their family.
“People come to me and they say, ‘I’m embarrassed to ask this, but where are the food pantries in Columbia County?’” he said. “It’s people who have volunteered in the past, people from Columbia County, people who have had six-figure incomes. It’s everyone.”
Brookings senior research associate Elizabeth Kneebone said the poverty sprawl is due to both the regional economy and the local population dynamic.
“Poverty trends tend to lag behind unemployment a few years,” Kneebone said. “As long as unemployment numbers are high, poverty will be a growing issue.”
Suburbs are also growing faster than cities, and Kneebone said more people are moving to the suburbs in hopes of finding better jobs. Growing areas often have more jobs in construction, hospitality, retail and restaurant industries, but those are still jobs that don’t tend to pay very well, she said.
“Unemployement is still pretty high,” she said. “We probably haven’t seen the worst of these numbers.”
Hard times have definitely affected Golden Harvest, but Firmin said it has triggered an unexpected increase in personal and small-business donations and volunteers.
“So many people are touched, and everyone is experiencing the recession,” he said. “It’s unbelievable what the recession has done in this area as far as provoking new need.”
Corporate donations are down, Firmin said, adding that Golden Harvest has had to lay off employees and is currently consolidating its Faith Food Factory and main distribution centers to reduce costs.
“Poverty is starting to touch every level of society,” he said. “Years ago, we had to make a case for people to believe there was hunger in our area.”