New England’s suburbs, often viewed as bastions of sprinkler-fed lawns and roomy SUVs, are also communities of hidden poverty, where one in four families relies on food stamps to stock cupboards with groceries and put food on the table, according to a report to be released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Wednesday.
Nearly 2 million people who live in communities surrounding the region’s major cities have low or barely moderate incomes, struggling with the same problems as the urban poor, but without the same services, support, and safety nets, Boston Fed researchers found. That number includes about 1 million — 80,000 of them children under age 5 — in Eastern Massachusetts.
“These people don’t necessarily fit the image we have of impoverishment,” said Anthony Poore, a community development manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and one of the report’s authors. “People don’t assume these levels of poverty actually exist in the suburbs. The fact that one in four families used food stamps hit me like a lead balloon.”
The study is the first of its kind by the Federal Reserve, which in recent years has written similar reports identifying trends in rural and urban poverty. Researchers said they felt a responsibility to broaden their surveys of community organizations to include questions about conditions in the suburbs in light of growing attention to hunger and “SUV poverty,” in which families maintain the appearance of prosperity, but live on the edge of financial ruin.
In addition to dozens of towns, the survey included small and mid-sized cities, such as Lawrence and Lowell, not typically viewed as suburban. But researchers said their populations are not big enough, compared with the overall sample, to skew the study’s results.
Still, there’s little doubt that hardship in the suburbs is becoming more obvious, said Jen Maseda, senior vice president of United Way at Tri-County, which serves Middlesex, Norfolk, and Worcester counties. The agency opened a food pantry in Framingham in 2012, expecting to serve about 1,000 people in the first two years.
Instead, it has helped about 4,000, including many families who have fallen out of the middle class.
Some people cannot afford cars to get to the pantry, the Pearl St. Cupboard & Cafe, Maseda said. There are few transit options, so they arrive by foot or bicycle. One elderly couple walks a mile to and from the pantry with groceries in tow, she said.
“We’ve been shocked,” Maseda said. The need “just continues to grow and expand.”
The federal government defines poverty as a family of four living on an income of less than $24,000 a year. The Boston Fed not only examined families below this threshold, but also those earning $40,000 or $50,000 a year who are unable make ends meet because of high costs of housing, child care, commuting, and other necessities.
Nearly 200 community organizations, from nonprofits to banks, responded to the Fed survey, conducted twice between May 2013 and February 2014. They ranked job availability, or the lack of it, at the top of the list of problems (64 percent), followed by access to affordable housing (57 percent). Federal and state budget cuts ranked third (25 percent), and adult workforce development, including worker retraining, ranked fourth (18 percent).
About 80 percent of respondents ranked the rising costs of transportation as a moderate or very important challenge.
The report also noted that long-term unemployment — unemployment of six months or more — remained a persistent problem for people living outside urban areas. Joan Cirillo, chief executive of Operation A.B.L.E., a greater Boston nonprofit that offers job placement and retraining assistance, said as the cost of living in Boston rose in the last decade, people moved to more affordable suburbs. But following the last recession, many of them are among the ranks of the long-term unemployed.
Cirillo said recent data from state-funded career service centers showed that more than 13,000 long-term unemployed people used the state’s One Stop Career Centers in Boston in fiscal 2014. She said about the same number used the Metro South West career centers (12,160) and the Central Massachusetts One-Stop centers (nearly 12,000).
That means that suburbs are not insulated from such problems — and may have problems all their own.
“There aren’t as many employment opportunities in the suburbs if you lose your job,” Cirillo said. “So these people have to live these very marginal lives.”
The Fed report highlighted problems in Connecticut, a largely suburban state where many low-income families are “lost in the suburbs.” About 180,000 families with a median income of less than $40,000 a year live in Connecticut, and about 80,000 of them live in moderate to affluent suburbs. The median family income in Connecticut is $87,000 a year.