Hidden Poverty: A New Landscape for the American Suburb
Photo credit: Flickr user Jeff Turner
“To see the face of suburban poverty, you needn’t look further than the human interest stories of every major newspaper in America. But while coverage has been plentiful, solutions remain in short supply, partly because the issue is still not well understood.”
Since at least the 1950s, the suburbs have symbolized economically successful family life in the United States. Over the past decade, however, poverty in the suburbs has grown twice as fast as poverty in urban areas. The story of this post, researched and written by my team and its partners, chronicles the rise of suburban poverty and emerging efforts to understand and address it.
The following story is from Insights:
In Irvine, a popular suburb south of Los Angeles, a working mother and her four children are forced out of their family home and into a subsidized apartment after a divorce collapses the family’s finances. In Naperville, a well-to-do suburb west of Chicago, local clergy meet to discuss the alarming increase in members of their congregations who are facing financial crisis. In burgeoning Cobb County, a suburban enclave northwest of Atlanta, a single mother loses her catering business and becomes a client of the local human services agency.
To see the face of suburban poverty, you needn’t look further than the human interest stories of every major newspaper in America. But while coverage has been plentiful, solutions remain in short supply, partly because the issue is still not well understood, partly because many would prefer to pretend it isn’t happening. A media audit shows that suburban poverty has largely been invisible as a specific topic in reporting. The problem is also absent on most philanthropic agendas: In 2011, barely 8 percent of anti-poverty funding from top foundations went to suburban-based organizations.
“In 2011, barely 8 percent of anti-poverty funding from top foundations went to suburban-based organizations.”
Suburban poverty is a trend that has been decades in the making. Fifty years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, 16.4 million suburbanites have fallen under the federal poverty line, and their numbers continue to climb.
The ongoing tally reflects a seismic shift that has taken place over the past decade: The suburbs are outpacing the growth rate of urban poverty—64 percent to 29 percent. If trends persist, the suburban poor could number 24.5 million people by 2020, exceeding the number of urban poor by more than a million. Already, there are more poor women, single mothers, immigrants, children, and elderly in the suburbs than in urban areas. More than 4 million of the suburban poor live in towns where more than 20 percent of the population is poor. This is known as concentrated poverty, and it is associated with a number of knock-on effects, including substantially increased crime rates, unemployment levels, and rates of teen pregnancy and high-school dropouts. What’s more, it exacerbates already existing racial inequality—non-whites make up 76 percent of those living in high concentrations of poverty.
And while poverty is affecting suburbs across the United States, major metro regions in the South and West have been hit hardest. In fact, nearly one-third of the suburban poor live in only five metropolitan areas—Southern California, the New York City region, Southern Florida, central Georgia, and Chicagoland.
Suburban poverty is different in every region—making the problem all that much harder to solve. For example, in the Houston suburbs, poverty has increased by 4 percent between 2000 and 2011, driven in large part by the arrival of low-income immigrants. In Washington, D.C., gentrification and rising costs of living in the city have pushed more people out to the suburbs. In the Seattle metro area, poverty is on the rise due to a combination of factors, including immigration, the economic recession, and growing income disparities.
But while the drivers vary by geography, the overall trend is driven by both poor people moving to the suburbs and people in the suburbs getting poorer. And system failures—from often-fragmented government jurisdictions, to limited public transportation options, to structural discrimination—only exacerbate the problem.
“For many suburban service providers, the initial shock of the increased caseloads and the demand for services has evolved into recognition of the situation as the ‘new normal.'”
For many suburban service providers, the initial shock of the increased caseloads and the demand for services has evolved into recognition of the situation as the “new normal.” But research indicates that poverty does not have to become a permanent, debilitating feature of the suburbs. In contrast to poverty within American cities, the problem has yet to become entrenched.
But keeping it from becoming so will require quick action. Fortunately, there is a coalescence of forces that indicate dynamism: an increasing interest in suburban poverty among media, government agencies, and NGOs; the emergence of local interventions for suburban poverty; and the changing nature of political power in the suburbs, particularly driven by politicians’ pursuit of the Hispanic vote.
Catalyzing awareness and understanding of the new and changing spatial distribution of poverty is important, in parallel with engaging key players at the metro-regional level to demonstrate success stories that can be scaled across regions. For example, in Baltimore, a specialized metro-regional voucher program works across sectors to help low-income families access private-market housing in low-poverty neighborhoods through streamlined administration of rent vouchers paired with pre-move and two years of post-move counseling. It includes access to employment and transportation assistance, along with landlord education and other features. In Connecticut, the Hartford Region Open Choice Program is a cross-district school integration model that allows suburban students to attend public schools in urban areas, and vice versa, and supports inter-district magnet schools. In Minnesota, a property tax pooling policy in the Twin Cities metro area promotes structured metro-regional level development; it is the only policy to do this across counties.
With more philanthropic funding and attention, these programs could be scaled and tested to other communities. A metro-regional framework allows solutions to address regional trends, including labor market developments. But, most important, it helps to mitigate the criticism that a focus on suburban poverty may distract from work being done to end urban poverty—for in fact the two are closely connected.
By establishing a single table for the different, and often disparate, players in a region, from multiple governments, to citizens, to nonprofits, businesses, and foundations—needed dialogue and coordination can begin. What they’ll find is that cities and suburbs have more in common than they might have thought—but by collaborating on shared problems, both will be better, more inclusive places to live, no matter the ZIP code.