Suburban Poverty

An article by Eyal Press titled The New Suburban Poverty, in The Nation magazine, reports a stunning fact about the American suburbs:

Stories of downward mobility in America’s suburbs have not exactly cluttered the headlines over the past decade. Gated communities of dream homes, mansions ringed by man-made lakes and glass-cube office parks: These are the images typically evoked by the posh, supersized subdivisions built during the 1990s technology boom. Low-wage jobs, houses under foreclosure, families unable to afford food and medical care are not. But venture beyond the city limits of any major metropolitan area today, and you will encounter these things, in forms less concentrated — and therefore less visible — than in the more blighted pockets of our cities perhaps, but with growing frequency all the same. …

The result is a historic milestone that has gone strangely ignored: For the first time ever, more poor Americans live in the suburbs than in all our cities combined.

The article discusses the drivers of this phenomenon:

One reason this shift may not have sunk into public consciousness is that for as long as suburbs have existed, Americans have tended to envision them as pristine sanctuaries where people go to escape brushing shoulders with the poor. The most familiar historical example — much lamented by a generation of progressives who came to associate the migration to suburbs with racial backlash and urban decline — is the mass exodus of middle-class white ethnics from the nation’s central cities, which accelerated in the wake of the riots and social unrest of the 1960s. In more recent years, it’s often assumed, the forces fueling the growth of suburbs have only made things worse — the social landscape more segregated, the sprawl more extreme, the gap increasingly vast between people who rarely set foot in cities and those who rarely leave them.

In fact, however, the gentrification of many urban neighborhoods, from Brooklyn to San Francisco to Washington, has forced many working-class residents out. In a reversal of the classic migration story, many of these displaced residents have fled to the suburbs, lured in part by the growing pool of mostly low-wage jobs there — cleaning homes, mowing lawns, staffing restaurants, strip malls and office plazas. Alan Berube, co-author of the Brookings Institution study, says the “decentralization of low-wage employment” is one of the main factors driving suburban poverty rates up.

Being poor in the suburbs has its own peculiar set of difficulties:

There are certain comparative advantages to being poor in a place other than inner-city Cleveland or Detroit. Whatever else he may fear, Price doesn’t have to worry about his children growing up on a street strewn with crack vials and gang graffiti — the one he lives on has manicured lawns and driveways with basketball hoops. The peculiar toxicity of urban poverty, many scholars believe, rests in its intense concentration, the welter of enmeshed problems that fuel crime, spiraling dropout rates and an air of hopelessness that leeches into every aspect of neighborhood life.

But the suburbs also have their disadvantages, among them the fact that getting anywhere generally requires a car. There’s no public transportation system in most outlying suburban areas, which is why the people who show up at the food pantry at the Red Cross in Rockingham County often carpool to get there, cramming one person each from four or five families into a single vehicle to save gas. Then, too, the newness of suburban poverty means in many towns there’s a dearth of social service agencies to offer help. Nearly 7,000 people showed up at the food pantry last year, a sevenfold increase from 2000. “It’s overwhelming,” said Janna Nowell, the facility’s director. The day before I visited, the pantry ran out of food, a problem that’s become familiar in many suburban locales. “There’s a growing spatial gap between the providers and the people in need,” says Alan Berube. “Public hospitals, nutrition assistance programs — most of these things are still overwhelmingly urban. You see small-scale operations in suburbs getting inundated. They just can’t deal with the demand.”

An even more vexing challenge is finding an affordable place to live, since most of the low-income, subsidized housing in America was built in cities. Where do indigent people in the suburbs go? In North Carolina, among the few options are places like the slate-gray trailer that 62-year-old Barbara Hall now calls home.

The nationwide change in demographic geography has political implications:

Unravel the thread linking suburbs to prosperity and something else begins to come undone: the story Republicans have told about how people living there, particularly those in the fastest-growing, furthest-outlying communities, are their natural constituents. “Democrats stink in the exurbs” is how conservative columnist Brooks put it some years ago, pointing to the strip-mall zones around Orlando, strong Jeb Bush territory, and to Mesa, Arizona, a booming area east of Phoenix. In these rapidly expanding communities, places where the parking lots of megachurches fill up every Sunday with SUVs, liberals just don’t have a clue what matters to people, Brooks implied. In the 2004 election, it appeared he was right: Republicans swept such areas, carrying a startling ninety-seven of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the country. In Democratic circles, panic ensued.

It turned out the panic was premature. In last year’s midterm elections the GOP’s advantage in the exurbs narrowed considerably. Democrats won 60 percent of the vote in inner suburbs, 55 percent in the next ring and a majority of the overall suburban vote. They would not control either the House or Senate today were it not for these gains.

In part, the shift reflects widespread disillusionment with the war in Iraq. But it may also be a sign that Republicans have become the clueless ones when it comes to decoding the concerns of suburbanites. The GOP’s presumed edge with these voters rested on the assumption that new suburban growth centers were filling up with prosperous middle-class professionals who care most about low taxes and being left alone to raise their kids. A lot of suburbs now appear to be filling up with a different social type: stressed-out parents worried about healthcare, college tuition and paying their mortgage. Political scientist Jacob Hacker has referred to such people as “office-park populists,” folks who “aren’t necessarily buying smash-the-system rants against free trade and immigration…[but] are skeptical of corporate promises and concerned about their security.”

This also points to some possibilities for regional cooperation that may have not existed previously:

Beyond altering voting patterns, the dispersal of poverty to the suburbs has the potential to upend a larger idea: that the interests of suburbanites and city dwellers are diametrically opposed. This has been the guiding — if often unspoken — premise driving regional development for decades, one that has played no small part in fueling residential segregation and sprawl. But if cities and suburbs increasingly face many of the same problems, wouldn’t it make sense for them to work together?


Press, Eyal, The New Suburban Poverty. The Nation, April 23, 2007 issue (posted April 13, 2007).

Berube, Alan and Elizabeth Kneebone, Two Steps Back: City and Suburban Poverty Trends 1999-2005, Brookings Institution, December 2006.

Orfield, Myron American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality. Brookings Instution Press, 2002. Researches demographic and geographic patterns in 25 metro areas; argues for metropolitan governance and regional cooperation in planning. A 24-page summary of the book is available.

An Activist’s Guide to Metropolitics has answers to frequently asked questions about regional government and land planning, case studies and lessons learned by activists.

Housing + Transportation: Moving the Region Towards Greater Affordability, a project of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Includes numerous tools and reports.

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