The latest research on U.S. poverty shows that the fever that has held for years now shows no signs of breaking. Poverty continues to spread from the cities to the suburbs, where it is increasingly concentrated. While a recent update on the data reveals a jarring rise in poor populations, it's a difference in degree, not in kind. For areas that were already suffering, the Great Recession made matters that much worse.
The Brookings Institution has released an update to its 2011 report on concentrated poverty, a study that led to a book and generated a lot of discussion about suburban poverty in America. Drawing on more recent American Census Survey data (from 2008 to 2012), the update demonstrates how the Great Recession exacerbated a crisis that has seen poverty entrench in the suburbs.
The Brookings report and the update detail the nation's high-poverty neighborhoods (those where at least 20 percent of residents live below the poverty rate) and distressed neighborhoods (those where at least 40 percent of residents live below the poverty rate). By 2008–2012, both the number of distressed neighborhoods and the population of distressed neighborhoods grew by about three-quarters. A few years into the recovery, some 11.6 million Americans found themselves living in distressed neighborhoods.
A rise in concentrated poverty is something we might expect to see after a prolonged recession. Still, a complete picture of the 2000s shows that the impact registered the hardest in largely rural areas surrounding geographically large metro areas. While concentrated poverty is still highest in cities—where 23 percent of poor residents live in distressed neighborhoods—the slide among poor residents into concentrated poverty was fastest in the suburbs. "Between 2000 and 2008–2012, the number of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 139 percent—almost three times the pace of growth in cities," according to the report.
That poses a significant challenge to policymakers everywhere. If the best tools geared toward alleviating poverty are designed for urban centers, then they may be rendered increasingly ineffective by the new geography—with poverty spreading to areas with lower density, less transit, and fewer services.
By 2008–2012, in fact, the suburbs were home to almost as many high-poverty neighborhoods as cities.
In the nation's largest metro areas, both the population of the suburban poor living in concentrated disadvantage and the share of the suburban poor living in these high-poverty and distressed neighborhoods increased. But over the whole course of the 2000s, those increases materialized in different ways for different regions. Winston-Salem, Greenville, and Atlanta—and other metro areas in the South—saw the largest increases in the share of poor suburban residents living in concentrated poverty, according to the report.
Not all metro areas saw the share of poor residents living in concentrated poverty increase. In El Paso, Jackson, McAllen, and Los Angeles, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods increased while the share of the poor living in them fell—meaning that poverty spread out as it grew in the 2000s. The areas with the highest concentration of suburban poverty aren't traditional suburbs at all: They tend instead to be mostly rural, unincorporated areas outside large cities.
The report singles out one metro area as a stress case for the shape of poverty to come. "Atlanta, in particular, stands out, as it ranked among the top three metro areas for growth in its suburban poor population during the 2000s and, at the same time, saw its number of high-poverty and distressed tracts grow from 32 to 197," the report reads.
While severely concentrated poverty remains a mostly urban phenomenon, the number of poor residents living in high-poverty neighborhoods in the suburbs now rivals the poor population of high-poverty neighborhoods in the cities. That's a shift that was already underway before the Great Recession. But the full picture on the other side of the 2000s is plain: The shift to concentrated suburban poverty is deepening, and suburban neighborhoods with a severe concentration of poverty are on the rise.