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More families are struggling with poverty in Boston’s affluent suburbs

Jacqueline Merritt takes her son, Marcus, when she drives for field trips and sporting events. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Many suburbs around Boston are known for their good schools, picturesque downtowns, and steady stream of residents commuting to well-paid jobs in the city. But interspersed in this idyllic landscape is a growing number of families struggling to get by.

The number of low-income children in many affluent communities is rising at a much faster rate than it is statewide, in some cases doubling over the past decade. Wealthy communities such as Sudbury, Winchester, Hopkinton, Hingham, and Littleton have at least twice as many needy students in their schools as they did 10 years ago, according to an analysis of state data by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council done for the Globe. Other moneyed areas with significant increases in their population of needy students include Wellesley, Duxbury, Lexington, Needham, Belmont, and Westwood.


Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay has had such an increase in requests for mentors that it plans to greatly expand the number of families it serves, most of whom are low-income, including households in wealthier areas on the North Shore and communities such as Brookline and Newton. Its waiting list has jumped from 1,000 children two years ago to 1,500 today, even as the organization makes more matches every year.

More two-parent families, many with multiple jobs, have been asking for help for their children, said spokesman Richard Greif. Grandparents serving as primary caretakers — often as a result of parents’ opioid addiction — are also increasingly asking for help, as are Spanish-speaking parents.

Meanwhile, food pantries and fuel assistance agencies are serving more people who have jobs, own homes, and drive nice cars. In Newton, where nearly one in three households makes more than $200,000 a year, the mayor last year launched an economic mobility initiative to help the many families there who can’t pay their bills.


More and more, people are living without a safety net, said Jonathan Carlson, executive director of Self Help Inc., which provides fuel assistance, Head Start, and other services in 30 communities south of Boston. They have no savings, then their hours get cut, and before they know it, their credit cards are maxed out and they are in real trouble.

“It’s almost like you put a lobster in warm water,” Carlson said. “It doesn’t realize the temperature is going up.”

This is the geography of poverty today, with need rising in formerly middle-class families as housing costs skyrocket, wages stagnate, and the number of people working part-time remains high. More people, including a growing number of immigrants, are getting priced out of formerly affordable urban communities like Dorchester and Lynn and moving to the suburbs in search of cheaper rent, better schools, and more space to raise their children. Despite a thriving economy and the lowest unemployment rate in 16 years, many families are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

And it will probably get worse if the economy slows again.

“Poverty no longer means that you have no money,” said Paul Mina, president of United Way of Tri-County, which covers the Metrowest region, noting he was “stupefied” by the number of people coming to the organization’s food pantries and meal programs from better-off communities such as Ashland, Natick, and Westborough. “Poverty means that you don’t have enough money consistently to pay your bills, to buy your food, and to be able to keep up with the prices as they go up.”


Claudia and her husband moved from Brighton to Newton so that their 10-year-old son, Gabriel, who has emotional and behavioral problems, could get a better education. Now Gabriel has a therapist who sits next to him in class, and he is doing better in school, said Claudia, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her son’s privacy. But the $1,875 a month they pay for a cramped two-bedroom near Newton Corner is double what they paid in Brighton, where they lived with another family. Claudia’s husband works six days a week as a cook, and Claudia baby-sits and cleans houses 20 to 30 hours a week — but with their additional living expenses, money is tight.

“Any $20 we spend on something we don’t need, we’re going to miss it,” Claudia said.

Pedestrians crossed Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File/Globe Freelance

Many people drawn to wealthier communities for the schools are willing to make big sacrifices to get there. One woman living in a homeless shelter in Allston actually turned down a Section 8 housing voucher in Hyde Park because she didn’t want her children going to school there, according to Big Brothers Big Sisters. She ended up staying in the shelter for almost another year before she got placed in Newton.

The number of low-income students statewide rose more than 30 percent between the 2006-2007 and the 2013-2014 school years, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data. A change in reporting criteria in 2014 — switching from counting students who qualify for free or reduced lunch to those who are enrolled in a state-administered program such as food stamps or MassHealth — caused the overall numbers to drop, including in Boston Public Schools. The statewide numbers have risen since, but are just 3 percent more than they were a decade ago.


In many higher-income towns, though, the share of students that the school system considers “economically disadvantaged” has risen significantly over the past decade, despite the switch in reporting methods and relatively small increases in student populations. In Hingham and Winchester, the numbers doubled, from 105 to 231 and 106 to 216, respectively. Wellesley rose from 184 to 288, Belmont jumped from 187 to 325, and Westwood grew from 87 to 153.

During this time, the number of students whose first language isn’t English also increased dramatically in these school districts — more than doubling in some cases. Statewide, the number of these students increased by a third.

On Nantucket, where wages for landscapers, waiters, and housekeepers are higher than average, a rush of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, and Brazil arrived during the recession, said school superintendent Michael Cozort. But even a blue-collar job that pays $20 an hour isn’t enough to cover the higher costs of food, housing, gas, and pretty much everything else on the island, and work is harder to come by in the off-season. The school population is a quarter Hispanic now, up from 12 percent in the 2008-2009 school year, and during that time the number of low-income students has tripled, to 294.


The number of people living in poverty in the suburbs surpassed the numbers of urban poor in the early 2000s, said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and coauthor of “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.” The latest recession “pushed fast forward” on that trend, with the foreclosure crisis concentrated in suburban communities. Between 2000 and 2014, the poor population in the suburbs nationwide grew by 65 percent, she said, more than twice the pace in cities.

Nearly 19 percent of families in Essex County live in poverty, as do 14 percent of families in Plymouth County, 13.1 percent in Middlesex County, and 10.5 percent in Norfolk County, according to the 2016 Greater Boston Housing Report Card. The rates were calculated using a poverty threshold of $32,841 for a family of four — compared to the federal line of $23,850 — to account for the high cost of living in Greater Boston.

And these estimates don’t count the thousands of families above that level who are struggling.

Zoning ordinances that don’t allow multifamily housing are contributing to families’ struggles on the North Shore, said Andrew DeFranza, executive director of Harborlight Community Partners, a nonprofit low-income housing developer in Beverly. As a result, he said, the multifamily housing supply is constricted — and expensive.

“There are a whole lot of people, home health aides, nursery school workers, doing things society depends on, who can’t possibly meet their housing costs,” DeFranza said.

Rents north of Boston are cheaper than in the city, but rising at a similar clip. The median rent in Essex County at the end of the last year was $2,182 a month, up from $1,690 five years ago, according to Zillow; in Boston, the median rent rose from $2,015 to $2,509 during that time.

In Westford, where the median household income is nearly $122,000 a year, well above the state median of $68,563, the social worker for the town’s Council on Aging has been directed to assist the growing number of younger people in need. Some of the residents Alison Christopher is assisting moved to Westford from the Boston area after getting a voucher for one of the new subsidized housing units in town. Other clients are restaurant workers, grocery clerks, and preschool teachers who make too much money to qualify for public assistance but not enough to cover their expenses. “They’re just kind of stuck,” Christopher said.

Jacqueline Merritt, 49, moved to Easton with her 7-year-old son, Marcus, two years ago. A school bus driver, she had been living in subsidized housing in Weymouth but lost her slot when she moved to Florida briefly to escape the cold. When she came back to Massachusetts, she sought out safe, family-oriented communities and found an affordable two-bedroom apartment in Easton. But after Merritt pays her rent, she has only $500 left each month. She works overtime shifts when she can, taking Marcus with her on school field trips and sporting events, and relies on fuel assistance and food pantries to get by.

Despite her struggles, Merritt is thrilled to be raising her son in Easton. “You see families and dogs go jogging by,’’ she said. “I want him to be surrounded by that — not by cars going by and gunshots being fired out the windows.

“I wouldn’t leave Easton if you paid me.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.