Friday, October 28, 2011

The new face of suburbia: poverty moves in next door

Contrary to popular belief (and what the new series "Suburbatory" and movies like "The Burbs" illustrate), the majority of people currently living in poverty are not living in the inner cities or rural America. Most of those below the poverty line live in suburbia.

In 2009, The Brookings Institution launched the Metropolitan Opportunity Series to document the changing geography of poverty in America, specifically focusing on the changing landscape of metropolitan areas. The series recently noted that from 2000 to 2010, the increase in poor residents in major metropolitan suburbs grew 53%, compared to 23% in cities. The series highlighted that poor populations have been shifting toward suburban areas for more than a decade. The recession accelerated this trend, quickly changing the demographics of suburban areas and redefining the image of suburbs.

Figure 1
Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at Brookings said, "We think of poverty as a really urban [read: inner city] or ultra-rural phenomenon, but it's not. It's increasingly a suburban issue."

One Brookings series report found that California, Texas, and Florida are the states with the greatest increase in suburban poverty (see Figure 1). The report further ranked the metropolitan areas with the highest rate of poverty in their suburbs and found the highest rate of poverty in McAllen, Texas. In 2008, the poverty rate in the suburban area of McAllen was 36.7% and the poverty rate in the city was lower, where 28.3% of residents were below the poverty line.

So what is causing the suburbanization of poverty? Analysts attribute the suburbanization of poverty to minorities and immigrants who left cities in the early 2000s for more affordable housing and also to construction and manufacturing jobs. For those who were already living on the edge of poverty, the housing crisis, decreases in wages, and unemployment tipped them into poverty as well. In cities like McAllen, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is 12%.

Americans who use Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) have also increasingly moved into suburban areas. HCVs help very low-income families afford housing in the private market in lieu of housing through a Section 8 housing project. Another Brookings study, conducted recently as part of the Metropolitan Opportunity Series, found that more than 49% of HCV recipients lived in suburban areas in 2008. The rates at which HCV recipients are suburbanizing, however, are much slower than those of poor populations overall. The reasons for this slower rate of suburbanization by HCV recipients are unclear. Brookings suggests it might be related to HUD housing policy restrictions or discrimination against HCV recipients in suburban housing markets.

The middle-class population who lost their jobs in the Great Recession also make up a subset of those in suburban poverty. These former middle-class individuals find themselves asking for help from the nonprofit agencies they previously helped to support. Many suburban nonprofit agencies are struggling to manage the increase in demand. A study from October 2010 found that 73% of suburban nonprofits are seeing an increase in clients who previously did not have a need for their services. Further, 47% of suburban nonprofits lost a key revenue source in 2010 and have likely lost more this year.

Luckily, some nonprofits are able to quickly take on the challenge. In Arizona, the Arizona Community Action Association (ACAA) has launched a campaign aimed at creating awareness about middle-class families who have fallen into poverty. ACAA is calling the effort "The Changing Face of Poverty in Arizona."

The suburbanization of poverty highlights the importance of recognizing the changing dynamics of poverty in America and responding accordingly. These changes will eventually need to be addressed by local governments who should focus on regional approaches to tackling poverty. In the meantime, for those who can afford it, donate to your local food bank. One of your suburban neighbors could need help finding their next meal.


Jason said...

In my own neighborhood, as well as as friends, it seems more and more homes are being left empty and more families are struggling. On my small street alone there are currently 4 homes that are empty due to foreclosures. A friend that lives in Brentwood had 10 of the 15 homes on his street empty due to foreclosures. To me it seems California's housing bubble, and its burst, have been a huge factor in the increase of poverty in California. Coupled with the recession, loss of jobs, and increased prices of goods/services(on just about everything) I expect the problem and the number to continue to rise.

KB said...
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oceguera said...

I have witnessed this process in my hometown of Stockton. Many people moved from the SF bay area because of the rising housing cost in the 90s and 2000s in the bay and the massive development of cookie cutter houses in the central valley. Unfortunately, a lot of these locations did not have a set plan for providing social services to the rising population. Instead developers were given the green light to build their housing tracts and tons of strip malls. With walmarts and fast food chains everywhere (where you're paid low wages) and a new mortgage to pay, people easily fall into poverty (in addition to all the of factors mentioned in your post). In my experience, I wish the city did a better job at regulating developers and design the city that is only based on driving from your home to the freeway to walmart and back. City designs play a huge role in the way people come together to build communities and provide mutual support.

KB said...

Suburbia has always appeared to be a place of financial security, but it makes sense that with the economic downturn, the economic landscape of suburbia is changing. As Jason said, just looking down the street at the number of foreclosures in many suburban neighborhoods is a clue that the economic composition of suburban areas is not the same as it once was. There is a lot of focus on urban poverty and not enough on rural poverty, so where does suburban poverty fit in?

Our approach to poverty in suburban areas needs to change. While there seem to be a few social services nonprofits in suburban areas, more should consider having branches or conducting outreach in suburban areas. In addition, nonprofits and local governments should replicate the ACAA’s project and increase awareness. Public transportation also should improve to provide poorer residents of suburban communities with cheaper options for mobility. Interestingly, one could probably make many of these arguments for how better to help the rural poor as well. If the rate of poverty continues to increase in suburban areas, then ideally the amount of services available in those communities should increase as well.