The New York Times
By: Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube
May 20, 2013
WASHINGTON -- LONG before Robert F. Kennedy toured Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta in 1964, before Jimmy Carter walked through the South Bronx in 1977, Americans thought of poverty as synonymous with inner cities and rural hinterlands.
But in the 1990s, poverty in suburbia began to accelerate at a faster rate than poverty in the cities. Sometime after the 2001 recession, more poor people lived in suburbs than in cities for the first time (even though the poverty rate remains higher in cities). The Great Recession, set off by a subprime mortgage crisis that began in suburbs and exurbs, accelerated the trend.
In 2011, the suburban poor outnumbered the urban poor by three million; from 2000 to 2011, the number of poor people soared by 64 percent in the suburbs, compared with 29 percent in cities. Today nearly one-third of all Americans are poor or nearly poor. One in three poor Americans live in the suburbs. If you're poor in the Seattle, Atlanta or Chicago regions, you're more likely than not living outside the city limits.
The 10 metropolitan regions that saw the highest increases in suburban poverty between 2000 and 2010 stretched across the nation: Cape Coral, in southwestern Florida; Greensboro, N.C.; Colorado Springs; Atlanta; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; Youngstown, Ohio; Boise, Idaho; and Salt Lake City.
The differences between the Midwest, and the South and West, are significant.
In communities like Lakewood, Ohio, west of Cleveland, and Penn Hills, Pa., east of Pittsburgh, the long-run decline of manufacturing jobs lowered income in an already suburbanized work force. Small suburbs south of Chicago, like Harvey and Blue Island, Ill., became home to low-income families pushed out of the central cities by higher housing costs, a pattern also occurring in the Northeast. Restrictive zoning, redlining and limits on annexation reinforced patterns of segregation and blocked struggling cities from absorbing affluent suburbs, as cities did in the 19th century.
Suburban poverty in the South and West is more closely associated with demographic change. South of Seattle, small communities like Tukwila, Wash., were transformed over two decades by the arrival of refugees from the Balkans, East Africa and the Himalayas. The growing job base east of Houston attracted low-income Latinos to formerly middle-class white suburbs like Pasadena, Tex. In Antioch, Calif., at the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, lower-income black households used subsidized vouchers to rent homes from owners who were underwater because of the foreclosure crisis.
To be sure, there are some relative benefits to being poor in the suburbs, which, compared with inner cities sometimes offer better schools, greater socioeconomic diversity, safer streets and, if there are jobs nearby, shorter commutes. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, the introduction of Section 8 housing vouchers in the 1980s, and the demolition of distressed public housing in the 1990s were all part of a benign effort to de-concentrate poverty and open suburbia to low-income households, especially members of minority groups, who had been excluded for generations.
But the suburbs haven't kept up with rising demand for services. In Penn Hills, public transportation is modest, and runs in and out of downtown Pittsburgh -- not to other suburbs where lower-skilled jobs are more plentiful. In Tukwila, the small school district has struggled to prepare hundreds of non-English-speaking low-income students for state-mandated achievement tests. In Antioch, social services were overwhelmed after the housing market crashed.
Those struggles reflect the fact that policies to help poor places -- as opposed to poor people -- haven't evolved much beyond the War on Poverty's neighborhood-based solutions. Many federal programs were designed for urban neighborhoods: Head Start and Community Health Centers, in 1965; the Community Development Block Grant, to promote economic development, in 1974; the HOPE VI program, to modernize distressed public housing, in 1992; the Obama administration's Promise Neighborhoods, which is based on the Harlem Children's Zone and tries to coordinate school and family support, in 2010.
These approaches are often ill suited for suburbs, where poverty is more diffuse, where the institutions and expertise to help the poor are lacking, and where local leaders sometimes resist such programs, fearing they will only attract more poor residents.
Moreover, the aid is fragmented. In a new book, we estimate that the federal government spends $82 billion on place-based efforts to combat poverty, but fragments that effort among more than 80 programs across 10 different agencies. Delivering services across more than one jurisdiction means that nonprofit groups, which provide services under government contracts, must grapple with multiple bureaucracies, regulations and reporting structures.
Innovative organizations are struggling to address suburban poverty. In the Houston area, a nonprofit agency called Neighborhood Centers blends 35 different federal programs with state, local and private dollars to provide a continuum of education, child care, financial and immigration services to more than 400,000 people a year at over 60 different sites. But federal requirements force the agency to maintain 40 different data systems, and report separately on each program throughout the year to several federal agencies.
Two groups in the Chicago area -- the Chicago Southland Housing and Community Development Collaborative and the West Cook County Housing Collaborative -- have joined forces to blend public and private money to mitigate the fallout from the foreclosure crisis in the city's southern and western suburbs. But they've encountered bureaucratic roadblocks in using federal grants across more than one jurisdiction.
We need to transform social policy for the age of suburban poverty. But reforming 80-plus programs one by one is neither efficient nor realistic. Instead, we should equip regions with aid that cuts across jurisdictional lines, help them use limited resources more efficiently, and reinvent the system from the ground up.
By carving out just 5 percent of what the federal government now spends on place-based antipoverty efforts (around $4 billion), we could create a competitive grant program focused on increasing access to economic opportunity. Call it a "Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge." It would give states and localities an incentive to join forces to compete for federal dollars. President Obama's Race to the Top educational program already provides such a model: it gave the Seattle Public Schools and six suburban districts, including Tukwila, an award to reduce achievement gaps and to ensure that high school graduates were prepared for college or entering competitive fields.
Getting Congress to act in this age of gridlock is a tall order. But state and local policy makers can also help, by putting their scarce discretionary antipoverty resources behind organizations that have proved their ability to provide services in both urban and suburban communities.
Americans moved to the suburbs after World War II to escape the problem of poverty in cities. Running away is no longer an option -- the cities' traditional woes are now in the suburbs, too. We have to recognize that the face of American poverty is an increasingly suburban one, and act accordingly.