There is no word more evocative in the urban vernacular than "suburb." For most of us, those two syllables conjure a very specific type of place, with a specific kind of people comfortably living there.
"We think about suburbs in one way," says Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "We have a very stereotypical view of suburbs as middle-class, affluent, Leave-It-To-Beaver type places."
And yet, over the last decade, suburbs have increasingly become home to America's poor. Between 2000 and 2011, the population living in American cities below the poverty line increased by 29 percent. During that same time, across the country in the suburbs of metropolitan areas as diverse as Atlanta and Detroit and Salt Lake City, the ranks of the poor grew by 64 percent. Today, more poor people live in the suburbs (16.4 million of them) than in U.S. cities (13.4 million), despite the perception that poverty remains a uniquely urban problem.
As Kneebone and colleague Alan Berube have written before for Cities, this geographic shift has been no quirk of the recession. It began before the housing market crashed, and will inevitably tax communities unaccustomed to housing the poor well into and beyond the recovery. The changing shape of poverty is more systemic than an economic downturn, as Kneebone and Berube document in a new book that corrals several years of research on the topic, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.
"Often when we talk about rising suburban poverty, people automatically think about, 'Well, who’s moving into these neighborhoods?'" Kneebone says. "But it’s not just people moving in. There have been two downturns in the last decade, and long-running structural changes in the economy, finding a lot of long-time suburban residents growing poorer, slipping down the economic ladder."
The pattern does vary, though, across the country: El Paso, Texas, has a suburban poverty rate of 34.6 percent; Des Moines, Iowa has the lowest among America's 100 largest metros, at 5.7 percent. These cities have seen some of the most dramatic changes in a decade:
Kneebone and Berube have built individual profiles of suburban poverty for each of the country's 100 largest metros, underscoring that a problem many keep at arm's reach is closer than people expect.
"These are really shared challenges," Kneebone says. "The more people can recognize that their community is a part of this trend, that maybe their neighbor is affected by growing poverty, that hopefully would help galvanize some action around this."
Until now, though, elected officials, service providers and federal programs have yet to catch up to this new picture. And regions will swiftly realize that poverty programs designed for dense urban neighborhoods transplant poorly onto suburbia. "We’ve seen that the suburban safety net – it’s much thinner, it’s much patchier, and it’s spread over greater distances," Kneebone says.
Many suburbs, for instance, don't have the kinds of public transit networks that can connect impoverished neighborhoods to job opportunities. And it's significantly harder to address poverty through transportation when low-income households in need of it live dispersed over larger areas. Suburbs also simply lack the built-in networks of service providers that have grown up over decades in inner-city communities.
All of this means that if the geography of poverty has dramatically changed over the last decade, we'll have to spend the next decade (and likely more) thinking about how to address it in its newest forms.
"This really isn’t about shifting resources away form cities to suburbs, or saying 'Oh look here, now the problem is in suburban communities,'" Kneebone says. "It is understanding that this is a regional issue, that suburbs face the same challenges that cities have been facing for decades. But we have an opportunity now to change the way we tackle these challenges so we don’t create the same mistakes in the suburbs that have led to concentrations of poverty in cities."