2013 June

A Question of Terms: Suburban Poverty Authors Respond

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Note: This post originally appeared on Shelterforce’s Rooflines blog

The release a few weeks ago of our book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is provoking lots of discussion in the blogosphere.

The book even merited Brookings a description as “something of a Vatican for anti-suburban theology.”

But more seriously, J. Rosie Tighe reflected on Rooflines on how our findings reveal the importance of the perception of poverty in the United States, whether racial or spatial, and shape how we address it.

Our book and Tighe’s post also raised a number of questions for Joe Kriesberg, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, who authored a follow up titled More Suburban Poor? Think Again.

Kriesberg raises three particular points of concern (paraphrased below) that we think deserve further clarification and discussion.

1. Many of Brookings’ suburbs aren’t really “suburbs.”
There is no one definition of “suburb,” and that alone can complicate discussions of poverty and place.

We define suburbs by starting with metropolitan statistical areas (MSA), which are regional labor markets defined by the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget based on population and commuting patterns. We identify cities as the first named city in the MSA title and any other named city that has a population of 100,000 or more. We treat the remainder of MSAs as suburbs.

To be sure, this forsakes a lot of nuance. In particular, many “satellite cities” in older regions of the Northeast and Midwest aren’t large enough today in terms of population or jobs to qualify as cities, and thus, we treat them as suburbs. And for every place like Gary, Indiana (population 80,000), there’s a much larger Gilbert, Arizona (population 212,000), that’s nothing if not suburban.

But while older places may have functioned economically as cities a few decades ago, when they had more jobs and were real employment bases within their regions, today they are effectively bedroom communities for commuters like most other suburbs.

Though imperfect, our approach to identifying “cities” and “suburbs” offers a consistent set of criteria for distinguishing between the urban hubs around which metro areas form (the heart(s) of the regional labor market), and the rest of the region.

Recognizing that this measure of “suburbia” doesn’t fully reflect the complex range of places and experiences that exist outside of central cities in regions across the country, we actually spend a great deal of time in the book talking about the diversity among suburbs, and how their size, capacity, regional labor market, and population trends (whether they are growing or declining) affect their experience of, and response to, growing poverty.

Small cities in older regions do often have above-average suburban poverty rates. This is true of Lynn, Brockton, and Revere in greater Boston, places Kriesberg mentions in his post. Those towns have struggled for longer than many places with these challenges, and have seen poverty continue to grow. However, they aren’t where the fastest growth rates in the suburban poor have occurred in recent years. Towns like Randolph and Danvers, more traditionally suburban in feel, led the list, as their poor populations more than doubled over the last decade.

The awareness of and resources to address growing poverty differ across these communities, as does proximity to jobs, schools, safety net services, and other opportunities that can not only help poor families make ends meet in the short term, but find a path out of poverty in the long term.

2. Brookings’ place-based programs aren’t really place-based.
We take pains in Chapter 5 of the book to frame our discussion of place-based, anti-poverty policy. We define these policies and programs as those that aim to improve opportunities for low-income families by focusing on improving the places where they live: through neighborhood economic development, better access to services, and even mobility programs that help low-income families move to new neighborhoods.

Based on that definition, we identify 81 federal programs that total about $82 billion in spending, spread across 10 agencies. The bulk of our discussion focuses on how fragmented and ill-designed this suite of programs is for addressing a more suburban landscape of poverty, because it’s more spread out, or because it’s in places without the capacity or political will to execute these programs. (Smarter new approaches like Sustainable Communities are in that total too, but make up a tiny fraction of that $82 billion.)

All along the way, we acknowledge that core safety net supports—“people-based programs” like tax credits, subsidized health insurance, and nutritional assistance—are just as, if not more, critical to fighting poverty in this country. We even have a whole discussion dedicated to the “people versus place” debate and how we need both.

Of course more resources to address poverty at the federal level would be ideal. But even with new dollars, the challenge would remain of how to spend them more effectively to help more people in more places. And the fact is, we are seriously unlikely to see new dollars materialize anytime soon.

So, we propose to repurpose a small fraction of what we already spend on place-based programs to support models that more effectively and efficiently respond to the changing geography of poverty and opportunity within regions, improving outcomes for poor residents and communities no matter where they are located. That’s not moving resources from places to people (or “robbing Peter to pay Paul” as Kriesberg terms it), it’s making our place-based strategies more responsive to current realities, and maybe even integrating them more smartly with our people-based programs.

3. Place still matters
Well, of course it does. We can’t create real access to economic opportunity without understanding the opportunities and barriers that exist across and within places. The whole premise of this book is that where you live makes a difference. And if you’re poor, and you live in the suburbs, you may face a different set of challenges than our policies and systems were set up to address.

Pursuing strategies that take a more integrated and collaborative approach and that operate at a more effective scale is how we make limited place-based resources stretch further to improve outcomes for poor residents everywhere.

Getting wrapped up in definitions and old debates risks missing the point. The geography of poverty has changed. We need systems and strategies that make policy more flexible and efficient in adapting to the needs of low-income people and places, whether they are urban, suburban, or rural. That means putting more resources (federal, state, local, or philanthropic) in the hands of institutions that can do more than one thing, in more than one place, at the same time.

Kriesberg concludes his post by encouraging us to “read beyond the headlines and examine the report’s assumptions, definitions, and recommendations.” We couldn’t agree more (it’s a book, by the way)!

New Commentary on Confronting Suburban Poverty

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The Houston Chronicle: In fight against poverty, people make a difference

Neighborhood Centers’ Angela Blanchard, a panelist at the May 20 launch event, writes an editorial on suburban poverty in the Houston Chronicle.

Read the editorial»

The Seattle Times: Regional collaboration needed to fight poverty spreading to the nation’s suburbs

Poverty is spreading beyond city boundaries, infecting suburbs in metro regions across the United States, writes Neal Peirce. By 2010, the number of suburbanites living in poverty exceeded the total in cities by 2.6 million.

Read the editorial»

The Boston Globe: Poverty finds the suburbs

Elizabeth Kneebone speaks to the Boston Globe’s Ideas section about the challenges that suburban poverty creates and suggests a plan for how to rejigger the creaky mechanisms of federal poverty policy to do something about it.

Read the Q & A»

The Financial Times: The future of the American city

Once, Americans fled inner cities for a suburban paradise. Now an urban revival is making the suburbs the home of the poor.

Read the article »

Upworthy: 1 Minute And 45 Seconds That’ll Make You Think Twice About Poverty

The mission-driven social media site, Upworthy, is helping the Confronting Suburban Poverty in America video go viral.

Watch the video and share»

June 18 Webinar: Scaling Suburban Community Development Solutions Through Collaborative New Strategies

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In Chicagoland, clusters of neighboring suburbs are collaborating with one another and groups like the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council to advance targeted housing and economic development plans. Similarly, collaboration among regional organizations in the Greater Boston area reflects the kind of innovative partnerships and momentum underway throughout the country that can help American communities effectively respond to these demographic changes at the right scale. These initiatives provide new strategies for planning and data analysis, community engagement, foreclosure response and prevention, transit-oriented development and more.

Policymakers, community leaders, planners and others are invited to join us for a free webinar on this critical topic, “Scaling Suburban Community Development Solutions through Collaborative New Strategies,” on Tuesday, June 18 (3 pm EST, 2 pm CST, Noon PST).

Elizabeth Kneebone, Brookings Institution Fellow and book co-author, will be joined by two of the nation’s leading policy quarterbacks:

  • MarySue Barrett, President, Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council
  • Andre Leroux, Executive Director, Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance

Robin Snyderman, BRicK Partners, LLC and Brookings Institution Non-Resident Senior Fellow, will facilitate the conversation.

Please register today by emailing info@brickllc.com. Participants will receive webinar log-in information via email upon registration.

 

Resources

Learn about suburban poverty in your community, how innovators around the country are addressing it, and what you can do locally and nationally to take action.