Being Poor in the Suburbs.

Photo by Andii, via Creative Commons.

x-posted from TAPPED.

Last month, Brookings released a report that showed poverty on the rise in suburbs, especially in the Midwest — now, suburbs have the largest share of the nation’s poor.

Suburbs often don’t have the same same level of services that many cities do, and the absence of things like good public transportation alongside collapse of boom-era housing are compounding the problem, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

Because the suburbs have not been accustomed to helping the poor, they lack the services to cope with issues such as homelessness. Emergency and social services, for instance, are traditionally concentrated in urban centers.That’s made things worse, says Brookings’s Ms. (Elizabeth) Kneebone. Now that the suburbs have more poor people than the cities, she says, it’s likely that “the safety net hasn’t changed to catch up with these trends. So that is a concern – that there are gaps as needs grow in these communities.”

At the same time, service agencies are already stretched thin with fewer resources and increased need. I wonder how all this feeds into the narrative that President Obama is at war with the suburbs. Last month, Joel Kotkin argued that Obama’s “urban centric” policies aliented and angered suburban voters, hence the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

But now, once again, things have changed. For the first time in memory, the suburbs are under a conscious and sustained attack from Washington. Little that the administration has pushed—from the Wall Street bailouts to the proposed “cap and trade” policies—offers much to predominately middle-income oriented suburbanites and instead appears to have worked to alienate them.And then there are the policies that seem targeted against suburbs. In everything from land use and transportation to “green” energy policy, the Obama administration has been pushing an agenda that seeks to move Americans out of their preferred suburban locales and into the dense, transit-dependent locales they have eschewed for generations.

Kevin Drum acknowledges that Kotkin is going over the top, but notes that a failure to include goodies for suburban burghers could pose a real political problem for Obama. But if suburbs in reality are different from suburbs in our imaginations, then transit-oriented, job-building programs and expanded health care are really policies for suburbanites, too.Being Being b

  • The conclusions you quote are somewhat misleading. The suburban areas have a much larger population than the primary cities–like twice as much. This accounts in large part for the stats. If you look at people living in poverty *as a percentage of* the number of people in the type of metro area, then primary cities still have a far greater share of their populations living in poverty.

    Simply put, there just wasn’t that much more room for city populations to increase in poverty levels: Already 1/5 or 1/6 of primary city residents were poor. In the suburbs even with the increase in poverty (which is still, granted, quite a huge policy issue) the proportion is more like 1 in 10.

    • Clearly I was typing feverishly while you were hitting “submit comment”. :)

    • quadmoniker

      As I say below, no one argued that cities still don’t have high concentrations of poverty, only that poverty is spreading, and it’s spreading to suburban areas ill-equipped to deal with it. I don’t see how that changes the point at all.

  • This metro thrust by Brookings bugs me. There’s a debate in urban planning/theory about whether to prioritize metro areas vs. cities, specifically, as those of us who favor cities argue that metro politics prioritize more affluent, whiter suburbanites at the expense of city residents, who are more likely to be poor, non-white, foreign born, etc. I can expand on this if you’d like.

    The “largest share” argument is misleading – there might be an absolute greater # of poor people living in suburbs today, but cities are still home to higher percentages of low-income residents than suburbs. So poverty is still a more “concentrated” issue for cities.

    Also, demolishing public housing and building mixed-income communities DISPLACES poor people from cities. “Moving” them “to Opportunity” in the suburbs = poor people now live there. Why are liberal scholars/policymakers now heralding the rise of poor people in the suburbs like it’s news when they’re the ones that helped locate them there in the first place?


  • quadmoniker

    I don’t think anyone’s arguing that cities don’t have higher concentrations of poverty, or that we should abandon urban-centered policies. My point, as I thought was clear in the post, was that “urban-centered” policies are good for suburbs, too, and that the urban/suburban divide doesn’t exist, if it ever did.

  • Your point about “urban-centered solutions” I don’t think anyone necc. challenged here as much as we objected to interpretations of Brookings’ data or just giving creed to them to begin with. (is creed the right word here?)

    But there is certainly a long-established, historical urban-suburban divide: GI Bill just for white vets, federal highway transportation system, subsidies and tax credits for mortgages and homeownership and developers to build single-family homes in the suburbs, white flight, the shift of a majority of elected leaders from suburban areas vs. urban areas in Congress in the last 30 years, the difference in urban vs. suburban schools, the demographic composition of suburbs vs. cities, etc. etc. That’s why this “metro” stuff is so problematic. You can talk about regional cooperation or even regions w/o subsuming qualitatively different places under one heading, thereby erasing the specific needs and challenges of cities by lumping them in w/their surrounding suburbs. They may share problems and opportunities, and lord knows we need neighboring areas to work together on some issues (e.g., public transportation), but IMO policymakers are undermining cities with this kind of framing.

    I’m glad Obama is urban-oriented, and I think resistance to recognizing “urban” solutions as antithetical to “suburban” living reinforces the divide. I agree with you that suburbs need to be more dense, with better public transportation (on jobs – there’s also evidence that jobs have moved to the suburbs; the I-495 tech corridor in Boston is a good example), and I think Obama is advocating for the right policies here. That suburbanites resist it doesn’t mean they’re not the right solutions.

    Also, if suburban poverty were as alarming a phenomenon as Brookings alludes, then arguably wouldn’t there be more of a base in the ‘burbs to embrace these policies? This is why the other commenter and I are taking pains to point out the diffuse and relatively small scope of suburban poverty. So far it remains fairly invisible to the majority of suburbanites, allowing them to deny that these ideas are good ones for their communities. Also, there’s a big difference among suburbs. No doubt if we looked exclusively at suburbs some will be much poorer overall than others, and likely have an older, less desirable housing stock and are further from jobs and transportation corridors than other more affluent suburbs.

    • quadmoniker

      I think the points you’re making are tangential. All of what you say is true, but it doesn’t change the data, which show that poverty is rising everywhere, including surprising places, and that the places where the newly poor are living aren’t very good places for them to live now. Poor is poor. And it actually kind of supports the argument against a metro/suburban divide, which, as you noted, as driven policy decisions in the past: the polices that emphasized single family homes and diffuse development were bad for suburbs, too, it turns out.

      Also, I think credence is the word you’re looking for.

      • “The Suburbanization of Poverty: Trends in Metropolitan America, 2000 to 2008” is a very different frame than “Nation Growing Poorer: Trends in American Poverty, 2000 to 2008”.

        I guess it’s not “surprising” to me, and the way Brookings is presenting the data remains problematic to me, especially considering this is partially a result of liberal policymakers deeming cities not “good places” for the poor to live and driving them out to the suburbs, without actually doing anything to tackle poverty.

      • I don’t think these points are tangential at all. *Growth* and *capacity for growth* are largely responsible for the uptick in suburban poverty. The fastest growing areas in most metros are in the suburbs.

        Also, these Census data do not allow us to see *who* these suburban poor are. I suspect that at least some of them are suburban “apartment dwellers”*: families with children moving to apartment complexes in rapidly expanding suburbs largely for the educational benefits of the better schools–both transplants from the cities and new residents (including immigrants). In other words, we do not know if it is the case that “suburbanites are becoming poor” or if “former poor city dwellers are becoming (poor) suburbanites.”

        *(I use this term because I have been hearing it in my own suburb to refer to those families who are renters, as opposed to home-owners. I get the sense that this is often code for “low income” people and/or POC.)

  • Grump

    “You could live in the suburbs and still get had”
    -Common Sense in 1996