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Rising Suburban Poverty Is a Bipartisan Problem

“The numbers really underscore how cross-cutting an issue poverty is—it’s not just a red or a blue issue or an inner-city or suburban issue.”

Voters head to the polls outside Cleveland, Ohio. (Aaron Josefczyk/REUTERS)

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign famously made much ado about “inner cities”—those hellish parts of U.S. metros where “the blacks” live. As my colleague Brentin Mock recently pointed out, the phrase is decades-old innuendo for black crime. Outdated as it may be, there is a nugget of truth that can be extracted from it: Too many cities do have pockets of concentrated poverty—and Democrats as well as Republicans need to take responsibility for that. But the same is increasingly true of American suburbs.

A new analysis by Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, finds that poverty affects every single Congressional district in the U.S.—and suburban ones are not exceptions, but particular concerns. “The numbers really underscore how cross-cutting an issue poverty is—it’s not just a red or a blue issue or an inner-city or suburban issue.” Kneebone says. “Popular perceptions just have not kept up with the shifting and broadening geography of poverty.”

Kneebone compared data from the 2000 Decennial Census with 5-year American Community Survey estimates (2010-2014) to analyze how poverty rates and the numbers of people living in poverty has risen in each Congressional district. An interactive visualizes the results for each state, but here are the major top-line results:

Democratic districts have a deeper poverty problem

Congressional districts led by Democrats tend to have higher poverty rates. On average, 17.1 percent of their residents live below the poverty line, compared to 14.4 percent in Republican-led districts, per 2010-2014 data. (For context: The national poverty rate has been hovering between 13 to 15 percent in the last few years.)

These numbers don’t mean that Democrats caused the poverty in these districts. It’s possible that low-income individuals there vote Democrat because they think the party is better equipped to solve their problems. But data show that Democratic congresspeople are certainly not putting out the fires any faster than Republican ones: Poverty rates rose similarly in both Democratic and Republican districts—3.3 and 3.2 percentage points, respectively—between 2000 and 2010-2014.

Not only is poverty already deep in blue districts, it’s also becoming more concentrated: 22 out of the 31 districts that saw their shares of low-income residents increase to twice the national average were Democratic. The increase was particularly stark in urban districts such as those in Detroit (11. 5 percent), Indianapolis (10.5 percent), and Charlotte (10.2 percent). Georgia’s suburban 4th and 13th  districts saw 10.6 and 10.5 percent increases, respectively.

However: More red than blue districts saw the poverty rates rise, the analysis shows. And of the 15 districts where poverty rates fall, 11 were Democratic ones in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and El Paso.

Republican districts have a more people in poverty

As a whole, these red districts contained more absolute numbers of poor residents—25.1 million compared to 22.7 million in blue ones, per Kneebone’s analysis. That’s important because it means Republican poverty-alleviation policies have the potential to affect more people, overall.

The situation is also getting worse, fast, in many of these districts. Overall, 96 percent of congressional districts saw rises in numbers of below-poverty-line residents. But of 35 that saw their numbers double, 28 were Republican-led. The ones highest on the list were located in suburbs of Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Phoenix that were badly hit in the housing crisis.

The number of poor have increased in suburban and Republican-led districts. (Brookings Institution)

These districts also drove the growth in the nation’s poor in the time period analyzed—60 percent of the national increase came from these places. The rise in numbers of low-income residents in Democratic districts (33 percent) was lower than that in Republican ones (49 percent). One reason: changing settlement patterns among the poor in the U.S., Kneebone explains.

Although these districts stand out for fast growth in their poor populations, they also reflect a broader national trend in which suburbs became home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the 2000s.

To voters heading home from the polls, Kneebone’s message is that it’s necessary to demand more commitment from whoever wins the White House and the down-ballot tickets in their area. And for the lawmakers who prevail today, it’s to recognize that American poverty transcends party lines—and will need a bipartisan fix.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.