elizabeth kneebone is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.
Published August 4, 2017
Mention the "suburbs" and a host of well-worn images of bedroom communities, cul-de-sacs, picket fences — and perhaps a strip mall or two — springs to mind. If you need confirmation, just Google it. Aerial shots of subdivisions and green lawns abound.
Now run another search, but this time for "inner cities." A very different set of pictures emerges, consistent with the images evoked by President Trump during the campaign: broken windows, dilapidated buildings, the trappings of urban economic distress. All in all, a very similar set of images to those elicited by the phrase "poverty in America."
There are reasons why images of poverty and the urban core remain so inextricably linked in the nation's popular consciousness. For decades, big cities were where the poor were most likely to live. But by the middle of the first decade of the new century, this had changed. It's not that poverty suddenly shifted from cities (or, for that matter, from the long-struggling rural areas that stretch from Appalachia to California's Central Valley). Poverty continued to grow in both of those types of communities, but it grew at a much faster pace outside of them.
Between 2000 and 2015, the number of people living below the poverty line (which was just $24,257 for a family of four in 2015) in the nation's suburbs grew by 57 percent. Although poverty rates remain higher on average in urban and rural areas, by 2015 the suburban poor outnumbered the poor living in cities by more than 3 million and outnumbered the rural poor by some 8 million.
What's more, the growth of suburban poverty was not confined to particular parts of the country or certain sorts of suburbs. Almost every major metropolitan area experienced a significant increase in its suburban poor population between 2000 and 2015. That includes struggling Rust Belt metros like Detroit and Cleveland; fast-growing Sun Belt metros like Las Vegas and Phoenix that were on the frontlines of the housing market boom (and bust); and stronger regional economies like Washington, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area.
It will take years — and a lot of dedication — to design ways to meet the challenge posed by this changing geography of poverty. But one thing is already clear: the answer is not to try to replicate the programs that cities have developed over the decades. In fact, the answer will almost certainly be many answers, tailored to cope with this complex new face of poverty.
A number of factors have worked together to fuel the rapid rise of suburban poverty. In the 2000s, more poor people moved to suburbia, whether in search of better schools or safer communities, or to follow job opportunities that continued to shift away from downtown (or, of course, some combination). Some moved in response to the changing location of affordable housing — either by choice (such as by taking advantage of portable housing subsidies or moving to areas where the housing stock had aged into affordability) or necessity (for example, as they were priced out of city neighborhoods undergoing rapid gentrification). Poor residents relocating to the suburbs in the 2000s came from both big cities and from rural America. And a modest share came from abroad, as a growing number of immigrants bypassed cities altogether to settle directly in the suburbs.
But placing too much emphasis on who moved to the suburbs (the so-called "suburbanization of the poor") risks overlooking a key, and perhaps even larger, driver of the broader trend: the increased impoverishment of longtime suburban residents. In suburbs across the country, residents slipped into poverty over the course of the 2000s as they grappled with the impact of two recessions, including the 2008-11 Great Recession, the worst downturn since the 1930s — which was triggered by a foreclosure crisis heavily affecting the suburbs. Structural economic changes — including the growing prevalence of low-wage work — also took their toll, eroding the typical household's income even before the Great Recession.
The many factors that drove poverty's increasing and expanding reach in the last decade and a half came together in different ways, depending on the suburb. Taking a closer look at this growth within a specific region can help illustrate and unpack the diversity of experiences and manifestations of suburban poverty in America today.
Metropolitan Chicago: A Microcosm of National Trends
In many ways, metropolitan Chicago — a region more often associated with the challenges of urban poverty — encapsulates the range of dynamics that have driven the growth of poverty in suburbs across the country. Between 2000 and 2015, the poor population in the region's suburbs climbed by 84 percent, while the number of people living below the poverty line in the core cities of Elgin, Naperville and Chicago remained unchanged. By 2015, Chicago's suburban poor outstripped the urban poor by more than 100,000.
Yet, metro Chicago's aggregate trends mask a diverse array of experiences in individual suburbs that illustrate the complexity and multifaceted nature of the changing geography of poverty.
For instance, several of the suburbs that lie directly to the south of the city embody the trials faced by many older industrial regions still grappling with the fallout of decades worth of structural economic change and the loss of steel and manufacturing jobs. Take Chicago Heights and Harvey, inner-ring majority-minority suburban communities where more than half of the housing was built before 1960 (as blue-collar enclaves) and most of the rest was built before 1980.
Poverty rates were already relatively high in these municipalities in 2000 (17 percent in Chicago Heights and 22 percent in Harvey). As both communities continued to bleed jobs and population, the number of residents living in poverty grew by roughly half, pushing the 2011-15 poverty rates up to 28 and 36 percent, respectively. The foreclosure crisis in 2008 and the Great Recession that followed hit the south suburbs particularly hard. Yet, even after the economic recovery began, the labor force participation rate in both Chicago Heights and Harvey remained lower than elsewhere in the region and those remaining in the labor force faced double-digit unemployment rates. Indeed, roughly one in five were unemployed in the 2011 to 2015 period, underscoring the grim economic prospects in the south suburbs.
The economic erosion and population loss that undergirded the rise of poverty in these communities is hardly unique to Chicago's south side. Chicago Heights and Harvey share traits with a number of other struggling Midwestern suburbs that have grappled with growing and deepening poverty for years. Among them are the municipalities of Inkster, Southfield and Oak Park that ring Detroit, Cleveland's eastern suburbs of Euclid and Cleveland Heights and the now-infamous Ferguson on metro St. Louis's west side. But Chicago's suburbs also offer insights into the experiences of regions well beyond the Rust Belt.
For instance, in Aurora, Plainfield and Romeoville, in Chicago's western suburbs, poverty grew amid a very different backdrop than it did in their peers on the south side. Rather than losing jobs and people over the course of the 2000s, these places added both at an-above-average clip, which helps account for the preponderance of relatively newer housing stock and their stronger labor force participation and employment rates. These communities are home to relatively smaller African-American populations. By the same token, immigrants make up a larger share of the poor population and population overall in Aurora and Romeoville than is typical for the metro area.
Thus, the context in which poverty grew in these western suburbs was more akin to the experience of suburbs in faster-growing Sun Belt regions (such as suburban Clark County outside of Las Vegas or the Phoenix suburbs of Avondale, El Mirage and Casa Grande) and in stronger regional economies (like Lake Stevens, Marysville and Auburn in the Seattle region and the Bay Area suburbs of Brentwood, San Ramon or Dublin) than in Chicago's Southland communities.
Chicago's more distant "exurban" suburbs in Grundy and DeKalb Counties provide yet another example of the breadth of community types that shared in the growth of suburban poverty in recent years. While poverty rates remain lower than average in these counties, both were home to steep increases in their poor populations over the 2000s. Between 2000 and 2015, the poor population in DeKalb County doubled, while Grundy County experienced an uptick of more than 150 percent in the number of poor residents.
Both counties have seen above-average population growth since 2000, although each remains less dense than communities that lie closer to the urban core. Their housing is comprised primarily of single-family homes, with most built since 1980. The residents of these counties are largely white and native-born, and are less likely to hold a college degree than is the average Chicagoland resident. Taken together, these characteristics make DeKalb and Grundy Counties less like the closer-in suburbs in their own region and more similar to suburban counties in the American South, like Bullitt and Shelby Counties in the Louisville metro area, or Barrow, Bartow and Carroll Counties outside Atlanta, in each of which the poor population climbed since 2000.
Clearly, a broad and diverse array of communities, both within the Chicago metro area and elsewhere across the country, was touched by the rapid growth of poverty in the nation's suburbs. Yet as different as these communities may seem, they share a number of challenges when it comes to adapting to the rise of poverty in a suburban context.
The growing presence of poverty in America's suburbs begs the question: is it necessarily a bad thing to have more poor people living in suburbia? Indeed, the 1990s ushered in concerted policy efforts — through programs like the Housing and Urban Development Department's HOPE VI — to break up concentrations of poverty in distressed urban neighborhoods and give low-income families a chance to live in better-off communities, including higher-opportunity suburbs.
There's a strong and growing body of evidence to support such policy goals. Concentrating the poor in very poor neighborhoods has been shown to subject residents to a number of additional obstacles that make it that much harder to escape poverty. As the work of the economist Raj Chetty and others has borne out, poor residents in communities with less-concentrated poverty, safer neighborhoods and better schools have a better chance of moving up the economic ladder.
However, many of the jurisdictions hit hardest by the rise of suburban poverty since 2000 were not necessarily communities of opportunity for the poor, as evidenced, in part, by the rapid expansion of concentrated poverty beyond the urban core. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the nation's suburbs – and the number of poor residents living in these neighborhoods — more than doubled, making the suburbs home to the fastest growth in concentrated disadvantage in the nation. Whether dealing with increasing economic distress or simply with a rapid rise in need in places where poverty was a relatively new phenomenon, many suburbs were ill-prepared to respond effectively.
For one thing, suburban jurisdictions often lack the infrastructure and support systems that large cities have spent decades building. Low-income residents in the suburbs are less likely than their urban peers to have access to public transit, and suburbs that do have public transit offer less-frequent service and weaker connections to other parts of the region. Among other things, that means residents without cars can reach a far smaller share of metro area jobs than urban residents can.
The lack of transit options makes it that much harder for poor suburbanites to overcome the spatial mismatch between where they can afford to live and where job opportunities lie — a mismatch that has only worsened since 2000 as the number of jobs within commuting distance declined sharply for the average poor suburban resident. For example, between 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs near the typical poor residents in Chicago's suburbs dropped by 16 percent and amounted to just one-third the employment options within reach of the average urban resident.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Associated Press
For residents in suburbs with limited or no transit options, reaching jobs that offer a path out of poverty can be a costly proposition. According to the Center for Neighborhood Technologies' housing and transportation affordability index, the typical household in places like Chicago Heights, Aurora and Grundy County spends upward of 20 percent of its income on transportation. For poor households, the income burden can be even greater.
Lack of affordable and reliable transportation does not just impede access to employment. It can also make it difficult for the poor to reach critical services and work supports. As my colleagues Scott Allard and Benjamin Roth have detailed in their research, the nonprofit safety net tends to be weaker and patchier in the suburbs, with many large suburbs lacking local providers in key areas such as substance abuse, mental health and employment services.
Suburban safety-net providers tend to stretch their service areas over greater distances while working with fewer resources than their urban counterparts. According to data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, in 2012, safety-net services located in Chicago's suburbs had budgets that collectively equaled just over $1,200 per poor person, while urban nonprofit resources totaled roughly $3,700 per poor resident.
In part, the lag in suburban nonprofit capacity reflects disparities in philanthropic giving. The political scientists Sarah Reckhow and Margaret Weir found that philanthropic investment in safety-net providers disproportionately went to central cities in the late 2000s, even as poverty was shifting toward the suburbs. For example, nonprofits in the city of Chicago received $68 per poor person in philanthropy in 2007, compared to just $2 per poor person in the suburbs.
Reckhow and Weir also found that while limited nonprofit capacity in suburbs made it difficult for philanthropies to increase their giving in struggling communities, philanthropies provided relatively little funding to build such institutions in those communities. This presented a chicken-and-egg conundrum that frustrates efforts to bridge the capacity gap in the suburbs.
Getting to Effective Scale
That capacity gap extends beyond nonprofit and philanthropic resources. "The suburbs" often encompass quite a fragmented collection of places, made up of dozens or even hundreds of relatively small jurisdictions within a region. Many of those municipalities lack adequate staff and are often operating with strained budgets and at too small a scale to effectively address rising needs. Such communities may not even have the wherewithal to compile a competitive application to attract government funding for poverty-alleviation programs, much less implement them.
At the same time, federal programs have been slow to respond to poverty's expanding geographic footprint. In part, that's because of capacity issues, but it is also because the dozens of federal place-based antipoverty programs created over several decades were often designed with inner-city neighborhoods in mind. These funding streams often lack the flexibility to respond to the rise of suburban poverty. In some cases, that lack of responsiveness stems from eligibility criteria that prioritize density and high poverty rates, which often remain lower in suburbs even when those suburbs are home to higher numbers of poor residents.
In other instances, the criteria (whether in principle or practice) do not translate easily to the suburban context. For example, as the housing crisis unfolded in the late 2000s, Chicago's Southland suburbs were among the hardest hit by foreclosures.
Several relatively small jurisdictions were all struggling with similar challenges around vacant properties and blight. But rather than trying to compete against each other for federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program dollars, 19 suburbs in south Cook County (including Chicago Heights and Harvey) decided to craft a joint application. With technical assistance from a few key regional institutions, they launched the Chicago Southland Housing and Community Development Collaborative to accommodate their joint efforts. Local foundations provided early investments that allowed the collaborative to hire a coordinator who helped the communities navigate the planning, application and implementation process.
The south suburbs succeeded in attracting $9 million from Cook County in the first wave of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding. However, unused to working with this kind of collaborative entity, technical advisors at HUD raised administrative concerns that led the county to fund 11 municipalities separately rather than the collaborative as a whole. That initial decision negated the efficiencies of scale and coordination the collaborative was hoping to achieve through its novel approach to addressing suburban distress that spanned not just multiple neighborhoods, but multiple jurisdictions.
On one hand, this example illustrates the trials suburbs face. But on the other, it demonstrates the types of innovative approaches regional and local leaders have been devising to overcome those hurdles and to respond more effectively to the increasingly regional landscape of poverty.
The answer to the many challenges raised by the growth of poverty in the suburbs is not to try to replicate the systems that cities have invested in for decades. That would just take too much time, given the pressing needs in these communities, and would not be an efficient use of limited resources. Instead, the nation needs a more-flexible policy framework for addressing poverty in place — one that recognizes the modern geography of poverty; engages it at an effective scale; and leverages limited money, expertise and political will in ways that help more people in more places.
A policy and practice framework designed with those goals in mind would align well with (and build on) the innovative work already underway. Many examples already exist of regional and local leaders working across jurisdictional boundaries, sectors and policy silos to improve outcomes for their low-income residents and communities.
In some cases, these models can be found in institutions that currently operate at a larger geographic and programmatic scale, making them well positioned to address capacity gaps in communities grappling with growing poverty. For instance, BakerRipley (formerly Neighborhood Centers) is a nonprofit that serves more than half a million people at 70 sites in Houston and its suburbs. BakerRipley braids together 35 federal programs with state, local and private funding to offer an integrated continuum of services for low-income families and individuals.
"Scale" in this instance does not mean BakerRipley employs a cookie-cutter approach to service provision. Rather, its sophisticated infrastructure and programmatic breadth allow the organization to tailor services to respond to local needs in each of its locations. To do so, the organization invests in data gathering and community outreach so that it can understand the needs and goals of the residents and adjust programming accordingly.
In other instances, like the Chicago Southland example mentioned earlier, jurisdictions and organizations are achieving a more-effective scale through collaboration. Even with the bumpy start to their efforts to attract funding as a subregion, the jurisdictions in Chicago's south suburban collaborative persevered because they believed there were benefits (such as in administrative savings, increased capacity and broader impact) from tackling their shared challenges collectively.
Those benefits materialized as the collaborative attracted additional waves of federal, state and local investment that went to the collaborative as a whole rather than to individual jurisdictions (and that any one municipality on its own may not have been able to attract). Those investments have helped the (now 25) participating municipalities rehabilitate or demolish foreclosed and blighted properties, start a transit-oriented development fund and a land bank and create a mapping tool to help set priorities for collaborative projects transparently.
That initiative is just one of the many cross-jurisdictional collaborations that have emerged in recent years. Other suburbs on Chicago's west and northwest side have formed their own housing-focused collaboratives similar to the Chicago Southland collaborative. In the Seattle region, six King County suburban school districts have been working with schools on Seattle's south side (and with an array of other local leaders and stakeholders) through the Road Map Project – a collective-impact, cradle-to-career model focused on closing achievement gaps and improving education results for low-income and minority students.
In St. Louis County, the 24:1 Initiative brings the 24 municipalities that fall within the Normandy School District together in a resident-driven collective-impact effort focused on a number of community-development initiatives, from a community-owned land trust that builds and renovates houses to early-childhood and after-school programs seeking to improve education outcomes for local youth.
Each of these examples offers insights into the principles that should underpin an updated policy and practice framework for addressing poverty in place — one that does not set up capacity-strapped suburbs to compete with each other or with cities and rural areas where deep poverty persists. Rather, a modernized policy playbook would recognize poverty's increasingly regional reach and use limited resources more strategically. It's happening — but there's a long way to go.