2013 August

A Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge for the Modern Geography of Poverty

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This commentary originally appeared in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

Policy debates over anti-poverty policy (especially in academia) often get stuck on the question of whether it’s better to focus on “people” or “places.” The prevailing view of many economists is that giving resources to people, not places, is the most effective way to improve the well-being of low-income families. But it is obvious to even the casual observer that good schools, jobs, housing, and services – the types of tools and resources that can help poor residents forge a path out of poverty – are not spread evenly across the national landscape. Where individuals and families live shapes their level of access to these kinds of opportunities and in turn can either ease or deepen the challenges of poverty for residents struggling with economic hardship.

Despite this reality, our public policies fall short in taking into account dramatic changes in the geography of poverty in America in recent years. Between 2000 and 2011, the poor population in suburbia grew by 64 percent – more than twice the rate of growth in cities (29 percent) – making suburbs home to the nation’s largest and fastest growing poor population, according to the official poverty measure. By 2011, 16.4 million residents in suburbia lived below the poverty line, outstripping the poor population in cities by almost 3 million people.

As these changes have occurred, the place-based anti-poverty programs the country has implemented over the last five decades have failed to keep pace. Each year, the federal government spends $82 billion on programs and policies aimed at fighting poverty with a focus on place. From programs that invest in improving neighborhoods (like the Community Development Block Grant), to those that deliver services in communities (like Community Health Centers), to those that open up social and economic opportunities elsewhere in the region (like housing choice vouchers), these programs recognize the fact that place matters.

Yet these funds are not only deployed in a fragmented way – spread across 81 programs and ten different agencies – but many were also built with distressed inner-city neighborhoods in mind. Need clearly remains high in such communities, but these programs often prove inflexible and ill-suited to adapting to the suburban landscape of poverty. Consider, for instance, that there are 14 federally supported community health centers in the city of Cleveland, but none in the remainder of its county (Cuyahoga), despite the fact that more than four in ten of the county’s poor residents live outside Cleveland.

Notwithstanding these challenges, innovative and enterprising leaders – ranging from social service providers to community development financial institutions, regional intermediaries, local elected officials, school districts, and partnerships among these stakeholders – are finding ways to work within or around the current system, developing more effective strategies to address today’s geography of poverty. Organizations like IFF (formerly the Illinois Facilities Fund) and Washington state’s Road Map Project, and approaches like those developed in the wake of the Great Recession in Chicago’s suburbs and in Montgomery County, MD, are finding ways to work at a more effective scale, collaborate across jurisdictions and policy silos, and strategically deploy limited funds to help more people in more places, whether urban or suburban.

But over the long term, to truly reshape our place-based anti-poverty policy and practice framework to more effectively address the regional reach of poverty, the country requires something more than the current patchwork of creative solutions and workarounds to a system in need of new structures and thinking.

By repurposing just 5 percent of what the federal government spends on place-based anti-poverty programs, federal policymakers could free up $4 billion to create a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge— a competitive funding stream that would offer a real incentive for states and metro areas to think differently about how resources are deployed within regions to measurably increase access to opportunity for low-income people and places in cities and suburbs alike. The Challenge would allow states and regions to identify local needs – whether that means improving access to better schools, affordable housing, services, or jobs – and invest at scale to address agreed-upon goals. Funds could be used to build capacity in the region as needed to help meet those goals, and to evaluate which strategies work most effectively to appreciably increase access to economic opportunity. Moreover, that initial $4 billion could leverage private investment and realign other funding streams in ways that deliver truly transformative impact.

Making this kind of change at the federal level may not seem likely in today’s political and fiscal environment. But we can start by building on the good work already taking place in regions across the country. By lifting up what works and demonstrating the effectiveness of these models, local and regional leaders can eventually help bring federal policy in line with the 21st century geography of poverty and opportunity.

Elizabeth Kneebone

Upcoming September Events

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Elizabeth and Alan will be presenting at a series of regional events throughout September:

  • September 4: Alan will be in Atlanta for the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Housing Forum and will speak at Emory University’s Center for Community Partnerships in DeKalb County.
  • September 11: Elizabeth will speak to the EITC Funders Network in New Orleans.
  • September 12: Alan will present at Montgomery Moving Forward (Montgomery County, MD). Register here to attend.
  • September 17-19: Alan will be in Northern California for a series of events, including a briefing in Sacramento organized by the Sierra Health Foundation on September 17 and a public event hosted by the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano on Thursday, September 19 at 5PM (PDT) in Concord, CA. Register here to attend.
  • September 21: Elizabeth and Alan will lead a discussion on suburban poverty following Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s 3PM performance of “Detroit.” For more information on the performance and to purchase tickets, visit this site. For a discounted ticket rate of $25, select the 3:00 p.m. performance on September 21 and enter the code “BROOKINGS” on the ticketing page. The code can also be redeemed over the phone at 202-393-3939, or in person at the box office.
  • September 23: Elizabeth will speak on a panel, “The Suburbanization of Poverty: Surprising Challenges and Regional Solutions,” at the Council on Foundation’s Conference for Community Foundations in San Diego.
  • September 25-27: Elizabeth and Alan will be in Chicago for a series of events, including a briefing to the Metropolitan Mayor’s Caucus and a forum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
  • September 29: Alan will present “The New Landscape of Poverty and Inequality” at the American Planning Association’s Federal Policy & Program Briefing in Washington, DC.


Suburban Poverty and the Diverse Schools Dilemma

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My colleague Michael Petrilli from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a neat little monograph late last year entitled The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. (Disclosure: I read and commented on a draft of the manuscript.) It’s an engaging exploration of the choices that middle- and upper-income urban-dwelling parents face when confronted with the socioeconomically mixed public schools in their own neighborhoods. Should they endure the potential academic risks of sending their kids to these schools in order to gain the potential rewards of exposing them to a diverse learning environment?diversechools

What does any of this have to do with suburban poverty? Well, much of the research and school case studies for the book draw from the Washington, D.C. region. Petrilli frames those data around his own family’s experience in choosing a school (and thus, neighborhood) for his children. And it’s set right here in D.C.’s inner suburbs.

The book tells the story of the Petrilli family living in Takoma Park, Maryland, right over the District line in Montgomery County. Their local elementary school for grades three through five, Piney Branch Elementary, enrolls a highly diverse student body. About one-third of the students are from lower-income families (eligible for free and reduced price lunch), and black, white, Hispanic, and Asian children all make up significant proportions of the student body. By Petrilli’s account, Piney Branch Elementary has a strong principal, positive test score trends, and a commitment among its faculty and parents to embracing diversity. But Petrilli also describes the school building as looking “more like a prison than a joyful place of learning,” with discipline issues more characteristic of an inner-city school than one located in a middle-class community.

Schools in Takoma Park and Montgomery County are clearly confronting the challenges of suburbanizing poverty in America, and their place on the front lines of the trend is one of the key themes we explore in our recent book. Indeed, there are more Montgomery County students in the free and reduced-price lunch program (for families under 185 percent of the poverty line) today than there are students in all of D.C.’s public schools.

But what made me think about the intersection between Petrilli’s book and our book wasn’t the state of Piney Branch Elementary today. It’s what the school—and the community more broadly—might look like down the road if they can’t manage to attract and retain middle-class families like Petrilli’s. Will Takoma Park and its schools go the way of the many D.C. neighborhoods that suffered from middle-class flight and increasing poverty over the last several decades, ironically at the same time (as Petrilli details) that the middle and upper classes are repopulating some of those D.C. neighborhoods and their schools?

This is one concern that Myron Orfield and his colleagues detail in their work on what they call “diverse suburbs,” places like Takoma Park where white residents make up between 20 and 60 percent of the population. They point out that integrated schools are one of the key strengths of these suburbs, and like Petrilli detail the voluminous research findings on the benefits of such schools in an increasingly diverse American society. (Here’s some new evidence on that subject.) Yet for lots of reasons—discriminatory housing and school attendance policies, exclusionary zoning, and prejudices and preferences—these places are also susceptible to “resegregation,” in which racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income households become an increasingly large part of the population. Which is just another way that suburban poverty happens.

That brings us to the epilogue to Petrilli’s book. (SPOILER ALERT!) After deciding they needed a bigger house to accommodate their growing family, Petrilli and his wife end up relocating to the nearby Maryland suburb of Bethesda. The reasons were complicated, and you should buy Mike’s book to find out what they were. Suffice it to say that the local elementary school in their new neighborhood, as it turned out, had the distinction of being the least diverse school in all of Montgomery County; in 2010-11, only 1 percent of its students were on free and reduced-price lunch, compared to 31 percent county-wide.

Petrilli and parents like him are hardly responsible for rising suburban poverty in this country. There are many factors at work. Yet his experience highlights the central role that suburban schools will play in determining whether their communities can achieve and maintain economic integration, or will instead see ever-rising poverty and many of the same challenges with which urban communities have struggled over the last few generations.

Alan Berube

America’s shifting suburban battlegrounds

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This op-ed originally appeared on Politico.com

America is defined by its suburbs. Since the mid-20th century — when highways, the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration opened up a new residential frontier for the Baby Boom generation — suburbs have served as the backdrop for the middle-class American dream.

Not surprisingly, suburbs define our politics, too. While city dwellers overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and residents of small towns and rural areas vote for Republicans by large margins, suburbs are the quintessential political battlegrounds. In the 113th Congress, nearly half of all House districts,199 of 435, are essentially suburban — a majority of their populations live in the suburbs of one of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. They are represented almost equally by Republicans (101 districts) and Democrats (98 districts). As the suburbs go, so goes political control of Congress.

But now suburbs are helping define another American phenomenon: poverty. Over the past decade, America’s major suburbs have become home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of poor residents in suburbia grew by almost two-thirds, or 64 percent — more than double the pace of poverty growth in the large cities that anchor these regions. For the first time, more poor people in America live in suburbs than in big cities.

A number of factors converged to drive this shift. The collapse of the housing market in the late 2000s pummeled many metropolitan economies across the country, particularly those in the Sun Belt, like Phoenix, Las Vegas and much of central Florida, where the housing market had boomed the most. At the same time, many Rust Belt metro areas suffered greatly from the decline of manufacturing jobs throughout the 2000s.

The Great Recession is only one piece of the story, however. Although the downturn pushed the poor population to record levels and accelerated the shift of poverty toward suburbia, more poor people lived in suburbs than cities even before the market crashed. In fact, poverty began growing faster in suburbs than in cities as early as the 1980s. Suburbia was increasingly home to more low-wage jobs, more new immigrants and more aging housing, all of which led to growth in its poor population, too.

The rapid rise in suburban poverty during the 2000s cut across the blue and red political divide. More than 80 percent of districts represented by Democrats and more than 90 percent of those represented by Republicans experienced an increase in their poor populations across the decade. Some of the fastest growth occurred in Republican districts in Sun Belt regions hit hard by the housing market collapse, including Phoenix (AZ-5), Las Vegas (NV-3) and Atlanta (GA-7). At the same time, the biggest increases in suburban poverty rates occurred in Democratic districts in Midwestern manufacturing regions, like Indianapolis (IN-7) and Detroit (MI-13).

Despite poverty’s increasing suburbanization and bipartisan character, it is not exactly catching fire as a key issue on Capitol Hill. One recent debate in which poverty has surfaced most prominently concerns the reauthorization of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with the House GOP leadership advancing a proposal to cut $40 billion in spending over 10 years. The burden of those cuts would fall more squarely on suburbs than ever now that 55 percent of SNAP participants in major metro areas live in suburbs. Programs like SNAP, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid already deliver the majority of their benefits to suburban communities, many of which are squarely in the GOP column.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty in 2014, however, both sides should admit that the federal anti-poverty infrastructure from that era is outdated. Much of the $82 billion Washington spends annually to address poverty through “place-based” policies and programs originally was designed largely to assist the inner-city and remote rural locations that defined American poverty in the 1960s. The ways in which the current system approaches initiatives such as neighborhood economic development, community health centers and affordable housing construction are often a poor fit for suburban areas where poverty is more spread out, public and nonprofit capacity is thin and hundreds of small municipalities routinely compete with one another rather than collaborate to address shared challenges like growing poverty.

Fortunately, innovative organizations in both red and blue areas of the country are working around the current system to address poverty in smarter ways across urban and suburban lines. In the Houston area, Neighborhood Centers helps more than 400,000 residents per year — particularly new American citizens — access training, transportation and support that advance the well-being of families and the Houston regional economy. In the Seattle area, the Road Map Project brings together six suburban school districts with schools in south Seattle to close the achievement gap and help prepare all students in the region for college and career success. In our recent book, we recommend that federal policymakers repurpose a fraction of existing anti-poverty spending to support these types of strategies through a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge. This program would award funding to states through a competitive process for regional initiatives that increase access to opportunity for low-income residents and places.

Challenging states and regions to adopt these broader, cross-jurisdictional models for poverty alleviation won’t address the full scale of the poverty problem in America today, but it could help stretch limited resources much further. For Republicans, it would represent an opportunity to move away from outdated formulas and legacy programs toward more outcome-driven strategies that improve efficiency and cut bureaucratic red tape. For Democrats, it’s a chance to use scarce federal dollars to get local and state governments, as well as the private sector and philanthropy, to put more of their own resources behind poverty-fighting initiatives.

Over the past few decades, poverty has become an increasingly structural feature of the American economy. In all likelihood, suburban poverty is here to stay. The battleground character of suburbs could set the stage for more ideological trench warfare and gridlock over federal anti-poverty policy and a suburban replay of the challenges that have beleaguered our inner cities over the last few decades. Or it could spur a bipartisan effort to convert top-down federal programs of old into support for new bottom-up solutions to urban and suburban poverty alike. The future of suburbs — as an American ideal and political keystone — may hang in the balance.


Elizabeth Kneebone Presents New Findings on Women and Poverty at Regional Convening

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At the Women’s Funding Network’s June 25th Regional Convening: “Women & the New Economy,” Elizabeth  gave a presentation highlighting how women have been affected by the changing landscape of poverty in metropolitan America and the role women’s foundations can play in reversing these trends. Below are a few of the new graphs and statistics Elizabeth shared, documenting the growth of the suburban female poor population.

  • Women continue to make up the majority of the metropolitan poor. In 2011, women and girls accounted for 55 percent of the poor population in both cities and suburbs of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.
  • Between 2000 and 2011, the number of women and girls living in poverty in suburbs grew at more than twice the rate as in cities. In the suburbs, the number of girls living in poverty increased at a faster pace than the number of poor women, while in the cities, the reverse was true.

Percent Change in Poor Women, 2000 to 2011

Percent Change in Poor Women, 2000 to 2011

  • 87 of the top 95 metros saw significant increases in their female suburban poor population between 2000 to 2011. Metro areas with the fastest growth in the number of women in poverty coincided with regions that experienced some of the largest increases in their overall suburban poor populations, including Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA (155 percent), Las Vegas-Paradise, NV (138 percent), Salt Lake City, UT (138 percent), Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO (131 percent), Boise City-Nampa, ID (129 percent), and Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ (128 percent).
  • For the first time, more poor women and girls now live in suburbs than in cities. Similar to the metropolitan poor population overall, in 2000 just under half of poor females lived in suburbs of the nation’s largest metro area, but by 2011 that share had risen to 55 percent.

Share of Poor Women in Metro America who live in Suburbs,
2000 and 2011

Share of Poor Women in Metro America who live in Suburbs, 2000 and 2011

For more information on these topics, check out this recap of the convening as well as Spotlight on Poverty’s comprehensive list of research on women and poverty.

New Analyses Look at Suburban Poverty by Congressional District and the Impact of Food Stamp Cuts on the Suburban Poor

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Two new analyses were released by the Confronting Suburban Poverty in America authors this week:

In a new research report looking at poverty trends by congressional district, Elizabeth Kneebone, Alan Berube and Jane Williams find that poverty grew in almost every Congressional district during the 2000s, affecting nearly equal numbers of Republican and Democratic districts. Specifically, poverty grew in 388 of the 435 districts, most of which include a portion of the suburbs within the largest 100 U.S. metropolitan areas.

>>Read the report here

In a new post on the Brooking Institution Metropolitan Policy Program’s blog, The Avenue, Elizabeth Kneebone takes a look at the impact of proposed cuts to the food stamp program on the suburban poor.

>>Read the post here

Recent News Coverage

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The Economist: Broke in the ‘burbs

The suburbs are where you will find America’s biggest and fastest-growing poor population. It is not easy to be poor anywhere, but the suburbs present particular difficulties.

Read the article»

Watch the video featuring Alan Berube»

CommonWealth: Poverty sprawl

Michael Jonas of CommonWealth, a magazine covering politics, ideas, and civic life in Massachusetts, interviewed Alan Berube about the shifting geography of poverty in Greater Boston and nation-wide.

Read the interview»

CBS MoneyWatch: Poverty in the suburbs: Hidden and growing

The suburbs, long the place where people moved to escape urban problems, now have more poor people than cities do. However suburban poverty looks very different than its urban version.

Read the article»

U.S. Catholic: Poverty Comes to Wisteria Lane: Serving the new suburban poor

Numbers of poor people in the suburbs are growing twice as fast as their city counterparts. But many of these picket-fence poor don’t know where to get help—or can’t bring themselves to ask.

Read the article »

Federal Way Mirror: Suburban Poverty reflects new demographics in King County

“South King County serves as a poster child for the nationwide trend in suburban poverty,” writes Andy Hobbs.

Read the article »


Related Articles


New York Times: In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters

A study finds the odds of rising to another income level are notably low in certain cities, like Atlanta and Charlotte, and much higher in New York and Boston.

Read the article»

Paul Krugman: Stranded by Sprawl

New research on social mobility suggests that sprawl — not just the movement of jobs out of the city, but their movement out of reach of many less-affluent residents of the suburbs, too — is also playing a role.

Read the editorial»

Atlantic Cities: Poverty Maps From 1980 Look Astonishingly Different Compared to 2010

Emily Badger takes a look at the new mapping tool from the Urban Institute that tracks fine-grained Census data on poverty for every metropolitan area of the country, spanning the years from 1980-2010.

Read the article»

Explore the mapping tool»


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.