Trouble in the Suburbs

Poverty Rises in Areas Outside Cities

Alexandra Cawthorne documents the worrying trend of increasing poverty in our nation’s suburban areas.

A house is shown in the Laurel Hill subdivision in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Illinois. Suburban counties are driving the growth of poverty in the Chicago six-county area. (Flickr/<a href= thomasbrandt)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
A house is shown in the Laurel Hill subdivision in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Illinois. Suburban counties are driving the growth of poverty in the Chicago six-county area. (Flickr/ thomasbrandt)

The suburbs were once considered by many to be a retreat from poor economic and social conditions in cities. Now, however, they’re home to nearly one-third of our nation’s poor—and rising. The last decade set in motion this shift in the map of poverty, but the recession exacerbated key economic trends that rapidly increased the growth rate of suburban poverty to more than double that of central cities.

Federal and state governments should take note: This emerging trend calls for a corresponding shift in poverty policies that includes a more regional, all-encompassing approach.

New data show large increase in suburban poverty since 2000

The numbers are startling. Analysis from the Brookings Institute found that since 2000 the number of poor people in the suburbs jumped by more than 37 percent to 13.7 million—also outpacing the national growth rate of 26.5 percent. In a reversal from the beginning of the decade 1.6 million more poor people lived in the suburbs of the nation’s largest metro areas last year than in inner cities. Making matters worse, social service providers are often spread thin in suburban areas, and many have been forced to turn away more poor people as the need grows.

metro area poverty rates in principlal cities and surrounding counties

Some regions are having a harder time than others. Midwestern cities and their surrounding suburbs have seen the largest poverty rate increases since 2000. In the Chicago region, poverty rates are still higher in the city of Chicago than its surrounding suburbs. But the suburban counties are driving the growth of poverty in the Chicago six-county area. Chicago’s surrounding suburbs experienced more than a 50 percent rate increase while the city’s poverty rate actually declined by 0.9 percent. Research uncovered similar trends in more than half of the nation’s largest metro areas.

Poverty tends to be less visible in the suburbs and manifest differently from poverty in inner cities. Outer-ring suburban areas often have fewer community anchors such as universities, hospitals, and large businesses to stabilize them, which results in islands of poverty more isolated than the poor populations in many inner-city neighborhoods. Additionally, suburban communities have seen increased racial and income stratification as low-income workers—particularly recent immigrants and Hispanics—followed the migration of low-skilled and low-wage jobs out of central cities.

Concentrated poverty is still a significant problem even though it’s not as pervasive as it once was. The number of high-poverty areas—the Census tracks those with poverty rates of at least 40 percent—declined by nearly 25 percent between 1990 and 2000. Certain actions helped: Changes in low-income housing policy, for example, including the expanded use of housing choice vouchers eased many poor families’ mobility. At the same time, the gentrification of many city neighborhoods displaced low-income and working-class families that could no longer afford rapidly rising housing prices.

But over the last decade many low-income families leaving deteriorating high-poverty neighborhoods in central cities in search of better job opportunities, neighborhoods, and schools found themselves settled in new pockets of poverty in the suburbs. The decline in concentrated poverty varied across metropolitan areas as many poor households shifted from inner-city neighborhoods to outer-ring suburban areas. And poverty rates drastically increased in some suburban tracts as low-income families resettled outside of cities.

The downward mobility seen by a significant number of suburban residents since 2000 has gone largely ignored. A strong economy during the 1990s led to the development of supersized subdivisions, “McMansions,” and gleaming glass office towers beyond city limits in major metropolitan areas across the country. This may have led to the impression that all was well in the suburbs. But the social and economic challenges created by high poverty in cities increasingly spread to their surrounding counties during the 2000s. And as incomes have fallen in recent years the struggle to make ends meet has grown for everyone—especially among moderate- and middle-income households.

Suburban communities have been affected by a growing number of recession-related fiscal challenges including job loss, unemployment and underemployment, and the foreclosure crisis. But several issues intensify suburban poverty and create additional barriers to the economic well-being of people living in these communities.

Factors making poverty worse

Affordable housing. Well before the current housing market instability low-income households faced numerous housing challenges including an absolute shortage of affordable housing units. The foreclosure crisis deepened these existing challenges, especially for low-income renters: Forty percent of foreclosures have displaced renters.

But the dearth of affordable housing is now a middle-class issue, too, particularly in the suburbs. One study from the University of North Carolina Center for Community Capital explains that the affordable housing crunch is no longer felt “primarily at the bottom of the income scale…it has moved with surprising rapidity and reaches well into the middle class.”

Make no mistake: The very poor have the greatest housing need due to a severe lack of low-income and subsidized housing in most communities. But exclusively focusing on the lowest-income families ignores the millions of moderate-income families whose critical housing needs are sending their households into the ranks of the poor. And many of these families are increasingly relying on strained social safety net programs to make ends meet.

A porous social safety net. Analysis from Brookings finds that poor people’s requests to nonprofit groups for help making housing payments, paying bills, and purchasing food jumped 30 percent between 2008 and 2009 alone. Almost three out of four social service organizations reported requests from people who never sought help before. These included suburban residents. What’s more, the suburban safety net is often stretched thin across a larger service delivery area than its urban counterpart.

Most suburban nonprofits are also more fiscally constrained than ever before due to public and private spending cuts. Private charitable giving is also often not directed at poverty in the suburbs partly due to a perception that cities need more help.

Lack of efficient public transit and walkable communities. Many outlying suburban areas don’t have a public transportation system, and getting anywhere often requires a car. The lack of a personal vehicle and limited access to efficient public transportation is a significant barrier to employment for poor people in many suburban communities. Low-income families also need transportation to access supportive services, which are typically dispersed throughout a wide area.

The recession undoubtedly plays a big role in the suburbs’ worsening poverty. Jobs are obviously priority number one. But tackling increasing poverty in the suburbs requires policy interventions that also address the lack of affordable housing, sparse supportive services, and deficient public transportation systems. Paying more attention to each of the above issues would help make life a little easier for suburban residents who’ve fallen on hard times.

Changing how we think about poverty

The remarkably high growth of suburban poverty contradicts our commonly held perceptions of suburbs as leafy subdivisions, gated communities, and, in general, refuges from poverty in cities. But this redrawing of the American poverty map should cause us to abandon long-held myopic views of the people and communities that typically see poverty’s effects. Governments should work toward breaking down urban-suburban silos and develop innovative regional approaches to tackle poverty that encompass both city and suburb.

Alexandra Cawthorne is a Research Associate in the Poverty & Prosperity and Women’s Health & Rights programs.

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Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines

Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity