Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
It's the newer suburbs, not the old ones, that are struggling with the largest numbers of low-income residents.
There’s nothing new about suburban poverty, but in the popular imagination, it’s often not regarded as much of a problem. Instead, the “inner cities”—code for poor, black urban communities—receive the brunt of the attention (if not the resources).
While some communities have grappled with local solutions, by and large, the rising poverty in the American suburbs has been allowed to fester and grow, catalyzed by the Great Recession. At the same time, who lives in the suburbs has changed. As cities become more expensive, immigrants and communities of color have made a home for themselves outside the urban core—only to come face-to-face with the same issues they left behind.
In his new book, Places in Need, Scott Allard, a professor of public policy at the University of Washington, dives into layers of data on the changing geography of poverty, debunking misperceptions about which suburbs are getting poorer—and why. CityLab caught up with him for a conversation.
Does every type of suburb have a poverty problem?
A lot of our discourse around suburban poverty says, “Well, suburban probably is really a problem for old inner-tier suburbs that are bordering higher poverty neighborhoods in cities.” But poverty is pervasive across the suburban regions of all metro areas, whether they’re new or old. In fact, the rates of change have been more severe in newer suburbs—those built after 1970—than in older suburbs. When you break out the suburban regions, there are more poor people in the newer suburbs combined than in the older suburbs. That’s an important finding.
Having said that, there’s quite a bit of variation. You can find older or newer suburbs that saw severe increases in poverty and you can find others where things haven’t changed all that much.
The difference in the experience of poverty in older suburbs compared to the newer suburbs is often one of distance from the central city. There are transportation and job access issues that low-income adults face. They matter everywhere, but the distances are just greater in the outer-ring suburbs. Low-income households in both types of communities often experience isolation from opportunity, racial segregation, and a marginalization from politics. Residents may not be represented in local elected bodies. This is particularly true for immigrants and people of color.
You argue in the book that suburban poverty is everybody’s problem. What demographic evidence from your research backs up that claim?
What you see is fairly consistent increases in poverty across race and ethnic groups in the suburbs. The increases among whites are large and substantial, as are increases among blacks and Hispanics. Whites are a plurality of poor people in suburbs, still.
There are a couple of other demographic changes that are important to realize here, too. One is the increase in the share of households in suburbs that are single-parent households. And we know those households are are most vulnerable to falling into poverty. The places in suburbs where poverty problems have become particularly acute are where a larger share of the population doesn’t have advanced training or education past high school.
That reflects the reality of today’s labor market, where there are no longer large numbers of good-paying, low-skilled jobs in suburban regions. And the jobs that are available to workers without college degrees or some advanced training often don’t lift their families out of poverty.
You also complicate the notion that these places are becoming poorer solely because of an influx of poor immigrants and poor people of color. What’s the role that migration plays in the suburbanization of poverty?
One of the common narratives around rising poverty problems in the suburbs is that this is the result of poor families moving from the central city out. Sure, in some places, increases in poverty are related to out-migration from the cities. But those migration trends have been present for more than 50 years. For decades, middle-class and lower-income households have been moving from cities to suburbs, looking for more affordable homes, safer neighborhoods, better schools, and more community amenities. That pattern persists today, but is not likely to be the largest or most important factor in many places. In fact, the most important factor is change in the labor market—the decline of the number of good-paying low-skilled jobs.
Immigration to the U.S. is an important demographic trend related to the shifting geography of poverty. Today, more immigrants to the U.S. locate in suburbs upon arrival than at any point in American history. And these immigrant families are working often multiple jobs but not earning enough to lift their families out of poverty. Some communities have seen really significant increases in the number of immigrants from around the globe. But it’s something that all communities have experienced—urban, suburban, and rural for that matter. And again, that’s not the largest factor driving these trends.
You see that because the increasing number of poor people in suburbs is about three times the rate of population growth. That means that there are lots of people who have lived in suburbs for a long time who either have been poor, or who have fallen into poverty over over time.
Why are suburbs so ill-equipped to deal with this problem?
Since the war on poverty, federal and state investments in anti-poverty programs have largely been funneled into urban centers and urban counties. And we’ve built extensive nonprofit human service capacity in our cities. There’s good reason for that: In the 1960s, poverty was highly concentrated in cities and it remains so. One of the realities of the rise of suburban poverty is that it hasn’t corresponded with a decrease in urban poverty. But we just lack that similar capacity to tackle the problem in suburban areas. Our public investments need to keep pace with the changing geography of poverty.
One reason why we lack nonprofit human service capacity relates to the perception gap that we have about poverty being urban. In many suburban regions, nonprofits have a hard time attracting funding from charitable foundations, partly because those foundations aren’t aware of poverty problems in the suburbs of their metros, or they can’t make grants outside the city.
On top of that, when you when you try deliver human service programs across suburban regions, you encounter a lot of fragmentation. A typical food bank in a large metro may have to work across several county borders, dozens of municipalities, and lots of different school districts. That work can be difficult. Not all communities are supportive or have the resources to support the mission. That fragmentation also creates competitive pressures where no one is really eager to commit their own resources to anti-poverty programs, because they may be worried about their public image. No suburban community wants to be thought of as a poor place. Some places also worry that if they provide anti-poverty services, they will end up attracting poor people, even though that’s not likely to be the case.
How do you think things are likely to change under the current administration?
One of the false narratives I push back against in the book is that poverty is a problem for cities, and in particular for people of color. That’s a big element of the political rhetoric of this administration. Poverty problems are in all our communities. They affect all types of families of all races and ethnicities. That rhetoric creates an “othering” of poverty, and it undermines our support for safety net programs and services. Rhetoric really matters—it directly shape how we think of our responsibilities and who we think of as deserving of help.
The federal budget proposals that are being discussed and the health care bills will undermine some of the most critical, responsive parts of the safety net. The SNAP program, for example, is one of our most successful, impactful anti-poverty programs. It is really responsive to poverty no matter where it exists. The same is true for the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program that runs through the tax code. We should be doing things to expand, enhance, and strengthen those programs or at least maintain our commitments to them. The current federal budget [proposals] don’t do that.
They also aren’t going to do anything to strengthen the service provider capacity in the suburbs. In fact, they will weaken what little infrastructure exists dramatically. A lot of services provided to low-income households are financed through Medicaid, for example. [These and other cuts to the safety net] are going to be lead to a double-whammy in the next recession.
What are your recommendations to decrease suburban poverty?
One, we need to maintain our public commitments to the safety net programs we know are most effective at reducing poverty. There's also reason to think that we should be expanding our federal investments for services so that we can build capacity in suburban and rural communities.
We also need to think about our private commitments. Part of this is getting beyond some of the perception gaps and making sure that we're expanding personal philanthropy to support work in suburban and rural places.
And then finally, we need to start to think of ways we can cultivate and train the next generation of local nonprofit leaders. These are young people who are from communities of color, from communities of that have experienced increases in poverty, who can not only think about innovative solutions but also also implement those solutions with trust from the community and cultural competency.
We’re not likely to solve poverty problems in cities or suburbs if we don’t act together as metro regions. Our labor markets are intimately intertwined and there’s good reason to believe that our anti-poverty efforts are intimately intertwined. If we don’t work together to solve poverty problems that affect both places, we’re not likely to succeed at alleviating poverty in any place.