In a recent study from the Brookings Institution, fellows Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube ask the question, “What’s driving the rapid rise of poverty in the suburbs?” Looking at population growth during the last decade, Census data shows that the total number of poor residents living in the suburbs surpassed the number living in the city sometime in the early 2000s. And while this trend continues to transform the geography of American poverty, what is most striking is the pace at which this shift is happening. Between 2000 and 2011, suburban poverty grew by more than twice the rate of inner city poverty – 64% compared to 29%. These findings are shocking and significant for a number of reasons, bringing attention to the fact that the common picture of poverty, emblematic of the inner city in the 80s and 90s may no longer be so accurate. In an interview on NPR, Kneebone describes how “our perceptions are still a bit outdated. They’ve lagged behind the pace of growth that we’ve seen….” Kneebone goes on to suggest that the cause of suburban poverty might be explained by a combination of “more low-income families and residents moving to suburban communities [and] longer-term residents slipping down the economic ladder.” Kneebone also highlights that while we may have once associated suburban living with jobs in high-tech office parks or daily commutes into a central financial district, “we’ve seen jobs suburbanize in regions across the country, so move away from city centers and further out into metro regions and [those] jobs pay lower wages.” Speaking about jobs like construction, retail, or manufacturing, Kneebone explains that these are among the most suburbanized. Those industry sectors were also among the most heavily affected during the Great Recession of the tail end of the 2000s. The New York Times examined the NY-NJ metro area, suggesting that “as the region creates more low-wage jobs, and attracts more new immigrants, low-income households that in the past might have located in the Bronx or Brooklyn are now settling in places like northern New Jersey and Westchester County.” The article makes reference to the continually rising cost of housing across the country.
So, why is this so problematic? Thinking back to the start of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, much of the public services available to assist struggling families was designed in the city and for urban populations. But as poverty spreads throughout suburban communities, these safety nets are stretched much more thinly. There is less infrastructure in place to address things like housing, hunger, workforce development, and other social services. Services directed toward immigrant populations and low-income youth also become scarcer. Another article in The Atlantic explores this issue, explaining that as poverty becomes less visible in a sprawling suburb, it becomes harder to address. The issue of density impacts both social and physical isolation, affecting the opportunity for community networks like those found in an inner city high-rise housing complex, or the availability of public transit, making it more difficult or more costly to travel to a job.
Kneebone and Berube’s newly published book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, identifies a need to “collaborate across geographic boundaries” to “address the metropolitan scale of poverty—for example, collaborating across sectors and jurisdictions, using data and technology in innovative ways, and integrating services and service delivery.” There is plenty of data available on their website as well as here on PolicyMap. As decision-makers and planners, we can use this data to better understand this new and rapidly changing geography of poverty, so to better allocate resources and supportive services.