2013 November

Balancing Growth and Equity in Metro Austin

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By Barbara Ray

Austin, like other metro areas in the Southwest, has experienced rapid growth over the last decade.  That growth has brought many opportunities with it, but rapid growth also comes with its own set of challenges.

As the “Imagine Austin: Comprehensive Plan” puts it:

“As a fast growing city whose population is projected to nearly double over the next three decades, we are becoming more urban and diverse each year.  Our attractiveness brings a central challenge: how to accommodate more people, in a considered and sustainable fashion, while preserving what we value so that we get better not just bigger.”

Indeed.  But to get better not just bigger means asking some pointed questions. How does a fast-growing region keep housing affordable for everyone?  How does it avoid sprawl and the commuter nightmares that come with it?  How do localities ensure that everyone has access to the areas where new jobs are locating?

And, when poverty spreads to the suburbs — as it has in the Austin region, which ranked first among large metro areas for percentage change in the number of poor residents between 2000 and 2012 (162 percent) — how do suburbs build their capacity to support these families and ensure they are connected to the types of services, education, and job opportunities that can help them reach a more stable economic footing?

Those were some of the questions posed at the Community Advancement Network conference in Austin on November 3.  The conference brought together a range of experts, including Elizabeth Kneebone, to discuss strategies and policies to help Austin and its metro region balance growth and equity.

Transit often leads an agenda in cities like Austin with considerable sprawl. Advocates of transit-oriented development (TOD), a frequent proposal, hope that creating walkable neighborhoods close to public transit centers will help the environment, lower traffic congestion, and make it easier for families, including suburban families, to get to work and to connect with critical work and safety net supports.

Creating an accessible network of social supports is particularly important as the suburbs diversify with more low-income and immigrant families who need job supports, health care, child care, and other services. Panelists at the November 3 conference noted the difficulties organizations have in expanding such services further out into Travis County, particularly into the unincorporated Travis County where need has grown faster than the capacity to support it.

Currently, only about one-half of residents in Austin’s low-income suburban neighborhoods have access to reliable transit, for example.  One-half might sound promising, but it’s one thing to have access to a bus or train and another thing to get easily from that transit to work. In fact, only 12 percent of residents living in Austin’s low-income suburban neighborhoods can get to work within 90 minutes using transit.  And increasingly, this daily commute is a suburban commute. The share of area jobs located in the suburbs of Austin has increased from 29 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2010.

TOD can help.  However, without smart planning and inclusive alliances, TOD can also have unintended consequences.  Without a focus on equity, TOD can spur gentrification and divert limited funds to trains instead of the bus lines that many low-income workers rely on.  In “Bringing Equity to Transit-Oriented Development:  Strategies, Systems, and Regional Resilience,” Rolf Pendall and colleagues find that having multiple jurisdictions, community members, and power brokers at the table is the key to success.  While it is never easy, developing a regional view of transit’s role in the area’s prosperity can move the projects along with equity for all still a centerpiece.

These changes and the diversifying suburbs in Austin call for new approaches and partnerships, with different voices and constituencies at the table. The Community Action Network has been especially adept at forging these partnerships. As a neutral convener, CAN has convened a diverse group of people to plan for the future. Our own Policy Recommendations page has other suggestions as well.

Both the “Imagine Austin” and the “Opportunity Austin” plan—the latter a regional economic development plan spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce— gives a nod to this need to think as a whole and join forces in working toward a united goal of inclusive growth.

In their book Just Growth, Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor were struck by how the most successful metro areas were adept at moving beyond the classic business goal of “getting to yes” to “getting to we.”  Doing so means “creating a shared vision, a shared discourse, and a shared destiny.”  Bringing people to the planning table who represent different constituencies and different perspectives, Benner and Pastor write, will be critical to getting to that “we.”

In Seattle’s Suburbs, a Region-Wide Commitment to Preparing Tomorrow’s Global Workforce

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by Sarah Jackson

Tukwila, Washington, has changed a lot in recent years.  As recently as 1990, more than 80 percent of this Seattle suburb’s roughly 12,000 residents were white. Today, more than 35 different languages are spoken in one elementary school, and a Bosnian refugee grocery store buyer now stocks yak’s milk cheese for his Nepalese customers.

TukwilaThis once sleepy suburb, described in a recent news article as “the sort of place most of us just blast by,” is a new gateway to immigrant families from around the globe and for others from as close by as the neighborhoods of central and south Seattle. All are seeking more affordable housing and proximity to the region’s service sector jobs.

But with these changes have come challenges.  The poverty rate in Tukwila has jumped from 9 percent in 1990 to 24 percent in 2007–2011.  As Alan Berube recently pointed out, it’s now South King County—not Seattle—that “is home to the majority of the county’s low-income kids.”

Many of these kids arrive at school speaking limited or no English and needing significant social supports to be ready to learn.  This is on top of the unemployment and poor health and nutrition that their families face.  More than 77 percent of the students in the district qualified for free or reduced price lunch in the 2011–2012 school year, and a staggering 6.8 percent of students were identified as homeless that same year.

Other cities in South King County are dealing with similar challenges. Auburn and Renton, for example, also experienced jumps in poverty rates. School districts in both of these nearby cities had over 50 percent of students classified as low-income in 2011–2012.

As Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone write in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, what’s going on in South King County mirrors a national trend of rising poverty in the suburbs.  This rise is being driven by population growth, the location of affordable and subsidized housing, immigration patterns, and the growth and decentralization of lower-paying jobs.  But unlike central cities, which have grappled with poverty for decades, Tukwila and suburbs like it have a limited infrastructure to deal with rapid demographic and economic change.

Often it’s the little things that we don’t even think about.  At Cascade View Elementary in Tukwila, the Seattle Times reported, “Cultural references must be consistently challenged: things like fire drills, underwear, curtains, even baseball, may have no parallel in the student’s culture.”

The larger risk is that many of these same low-income students will likely have trouble completing high school, let alone going on to earn two- or four-year degrees, or competing for the high tech jobs the region is known for.  (Interestingly, employers in the region often fill these jobs by importing workers from outside the state or the country.)

But what’s different in King County is a unique collaborative model that is starting to make a dent in some of these challenges, and gain national notice from policymakers.

The Road Map Project is a region-wide effort aimed improving student achievement from “cradle to college and career” for students from seven school districts in South King County and south Seattle.

“The greater Seattle region has one of the best educated workforces in the nation,” said Mary Jean Ryan, executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, the nonprofit that staffs the project.  “We import highly educated talent from around the globe yet struggle to provide a solid education for the children in our own backyard.  The children who grow up here deserve as good of an education as the people who show up here.”

The project aims to double the number of students who are on track to graduate from college and earn a career credential by 2020 and to close existing gaps that exist between low-income students of color and others.

Large-scale regional approaches like this one can be important models for other regions facing shared problems like educational attainment gaps. Jurisdictions that are used to competing for dollars and services will likely find there is a benefit to working jointly on a larger scale.  Collaboration can help cover the fragmentation of services that often exists in suburban communities, and it can lead to better and more creative use of public and private dollars.

Of particular note is the project’s emphasis on using data to drive improvement and support collective action. Indicators range from being healthy and ready for kindergarten to the number of students who enrolled in postsecondary education by age 24.  Work groups with representatives from the school districts, nonprofits, community colleges, mayor’s offices, and housing authorities meet regularly to track progress toward goals.

The project has had some early successes, most notably the receipt of a $40 million “Race to the Top” grant from the U.S Department of Education in 2012, which the seven Road Map Project districts applied for as a group.  The project has also shown great increases in the number of eligible students who sign up for the College Bound Scholarship Program by the end of the 8th grade.

Dr. Edward Lee Vargas, superintendent of nearby Kent School District, said the project stands out because of the broad collective commitment in the region.

“Success at this scale is possible if, and only if, we all work together to place students and their future at the center of our decisions.”

Recent News Coverage

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New housing program in Balto. Co. aims to shorten shelter stays

The charitable organization, St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, expands ‘rapid rehousing’ model to the suburbs.

Read the article>>

Face Of Poverty In New Orleans Increasingly Suburban (radio)

Elizabeth Kneebone is working in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center to begin the regional conversation about suburban poverty, a growing issue in the metro New Orleans area. She begins her conversation with WWNO’s Diane Mack with some eye-opening statistics.


Suburban Poverty (video)

In the Chicago region, the number of suburban poor increased 99% over the past decade. The south suburbs have been hit particularly hard by difficult economy. Job losses and high foreclosure rates have meant mounting problems in many municipalities. Brandis Friedman has the story of how some are confronting these challenges.


Nation’s poor at 49.7 million, higher than official rate

The number of poor people in America is 3 million higher than the official count, encompassing 1 in 6 residents due to out-of-pocket medical costs and work-related expenses, according to the Census’ alternative poverty measure.

Read the article>>

Can Tough Love Help Reduce Poverty?

By making it more difficult to get and keep government assistance like welfare, Kansas and a half-dozen other states are hoping people will make more of an effort to lift themselves out of poverty.

Read the article>>


Related Articles


New York Times: Division Street, U.S.A.

Robert Sampson of Harvard argues that “an increasing separation at the top has intensified the effect of spatial divisions on everyone else.”

Read the blog post»

New York Times: Poverty in America is Mainstream

According to Mark Rank of Washington University, “few topics in American society have more myths and stereotypes surrounding them than poverty, misconceptions that distort both our politics and our domestic policy making.”

Read the blog post»

Tampa Tribune: Pinellas targeting poverty through health care, other programs

Pinellas County, FL has set a goal to reduce poverty in five selected communities over the next 10 years. Proposed plans include designating community redevelopment areas in each community to help the county compete for federal grants and to enable a portion of property taxes to be spent on infrastructure improvements, better housing and job training.

Read the article>>

Upcoming November events

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Elizabeth and Alan will be speaking at a number of meetings and events in November:

The Living Wage in SeaTac: Confronting Suburban Poverty?

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Alan Berube

The fate of a closely watched ballot initiative in the Seattle region is still uncertain, and its outcome may shape future efforts to tackle suburban poverty.

On Tuesday, voters in SeaTac, WA, a city of 28,000 just south of Seattle that’s home to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, cast ballots on an initiative that would raise the minimum wage for airport-related jobs to $15 an hour, the highest minimum in the country. As of Thursday night, the measure was passing by a narrow margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, with an unknown number of ballots still to be counted. If approved, the new minimum wage is expected to cover about 6,300 workers.

Are local “living wages” a viable strategy for reducing suburban poverty?  Many localities across the country—more than 120, at last count—have some form of living wage law, which typically sets a minimum wage of $10 or more an hour for businesses that receive contracts or subsidies from local governments. While most are big cities, some are suburban places like Manchester, CT; Macomb County, MI; and Lakewood, OH. Most research on the effects of these laws has studied cities where living wages were implemented, and finds that such laws modestly reduce poverty. The Seattle Times profiled the effects of an ordinance similar to SeaTac’s focused on airport jobs in Long Beach, CA, and found generally positive impacts, though perhaps not as positive as advocates might have hoped.

While some interpret the suburbanization of poverty in America as the movement of poor individuals from urban to suburban settings, a lot more has to do with economic changes rippling through suburban places. As so many jobs today are located in suburbs, especially lower-wage sectors like retail and hospitality, suburban residents are increasingly likely to experience working poverty. So it stands to reason that measures to boost their wages, like minimum wage and living wage campaigns, could be important tools for addressing the economic hardships facing suburban workers and communities.

But in researching our recent book, Elizabeth Kneebone and I saw that one of the most important characteristics of successful efforts to confront suburban poverty was collaboration. Poverty tends to spread widely across suburban areas like South King County, WA. SeaTac is just one among several communities in that sub-region that has undergone massive demographic and economic changes in recent decades, such that today, South King County—not Seattle—is home to the majority of the county’s low-income kids. Each community on its own can’t hope to tackle the educational challenges its families face, but through the Road Map Project, six school districts (including the Highline District in which SeaTac is located) are able to scale their efforts to greatly improve educational opportunities across South Seattle and South King County.

The SeaTac living wage measure is something of a special circumstance, since many airport-related jobs can’t just get up and walk away. In that sense, its applicability as a poverty-fighting measure to other suburban jurisdictions in South King County, or other parts of the nation, is probably limited. But hopefully the measure, whatever its fate, can serve as a reminder that:

  • Suburban poverty is in large part about the suburban economy. Better jobs and better wages in suburbia mean lower poverty, regardless of migration and demographic change.
  • Addressing suburban poverty at scale ultimately demands suburban collaboration. If the SeaTac measure wins but subsequently leads to greater economic competition (“border wars”) among South King County suburbs, which are just beginning to explore areas beyond education for stepped-up collaboration, it could be a step in the wrong direction.
  • Suburbs can instead (or in addition) be allies for bigger policy plays that boost employment opportunities and incomes across jurisdictions, like state minimum wage increases, or transformative economic development and infrastructure investments.

Creative responses to suburban poverty will likely not come from this Washington (i.e., D.C.) anytime soon. If nothing else, that Washington (i.e., state) continues to a proving ground for strategies to address the new geography of poverty and opportunity in our metro areas.

Four in Ten Suburban Public School Students Are Low Income

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By Barbara Ray

We’ve reached a new (and disturbing) threshold. In 2011, according to “The New Majority,” by the Southern Education Foundation, approximately one-half (48 percent) of all public school children were eligible for free or reduced price lunch, often a proxy for low income if not poverty.

Take a minute. One-half.

We’re used to seeing maps of red states and blue states as a kind of shorthand for our nation’s divide, culturally and politically. The Great Plains and the South are red, the coasts are blue. While that map captures the divisions between political parties, the map of low-income school children has another message. There is no divide when it comes to low-income children. School children everywhere are in need.

 Source: Washington Post, October 16, 2013


“We have an education system that continues to assume that most of our students are middle class and have independent resources outside the schools in order to support their education,” Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation and an author of the study, told the Washington Post. “The trends and facts belie that assumption. We can’t continue to educate kids on an assumption that is 20 years out of date. We simply have to reshape our educational system.”

Another outdated notion is that most of these kids live in the inner city. Fully 40 percent of students in the suburbs are eligible for free or reduced price meals, according to the report. New Mexico leads the nation with 72 percent of its suburban student body eligible for free or reduced price meals. California’s suburban public schools are 51 percent low-income.

As Confronting Suburban Poverty in America points out, among the 100 largest metro areas in 2009-2010, approximately 3 million more students in the suburbs were enrolled in free or reduced price lunch program than in cities.

To be eligible, a family of four in 2012 could earn no more than $42,643 a year to qualify for reduced price meals, and a family of four could earn no more than $29,965 to be eligible for free meals. The national median household income was $51,371 in 2012.

Denver offers a good example of this increasingly suburban phenomenon. Mile High Connects, a regional collaborative in Denver, reports that while the city’s public schools still have one of the highest rates of free and reduced price meals, the suburban districts are catching up.

According to the Mile High Connects report, Aurora, Adams County District 50, Mapleton District 1, Sheridan Public Schools, and Englewood Public Schools all had a greater than 20 percentage point increase in free and reduced price lunch participation between 2000 and 2010. During the 2000s, the overall poor population in the suburbs outside Denver and Aurora rose 138 percent.

Homelessness among students, including suburban students, is another disturbing (strike that, shameful) milestone. The National Center for Homeless Education notes that US public schools reported a record number of homeless students in the 2011-12 school year: 1,168,354 children enrolled in U.S preschools and K-12 schools. That’s a stunning 72 percent increase since the beginning of the recession.

And here again, homelessness is no longer a city problem. Homeless advocates told the Chicago Tribune that, “The problem often is dismissed as an urban one, but thousands of homeless people seek emergency overnight shelter across Chicago’s suburbs each year.”

In Lakewood, an inner-ring suburb in Cleveland, homelessness is also on the rise. Lakewood Community Services Center, which offers emergency and supportive housing assistance for residents at risk of homelessness, experienced a 140 percent increase in the number of people needing assistance between 2008 and 2012.

Suburbs are struggling to meet this rising need. Historically considered an inner-city problem, poverty has not been on the agenda of many suburban municipalities. As a result, vulnerable suburban families often have few services or supports to turn to.

In many cases, schools have become the canary in the coal mine when it comes to rising suburban poverty. They are often a hub for delivering services, including free and reduced price lunches for children, and frequently are the only recognized resource for social services in the community, and a place to which kids and parents will turn when their families are in need.

Mapleton School District in suburban Denver, for example, provides an array of supports and services for its growing population of low-income students, including hosting a food and clothing pantry, dentistry services, and mental health services for the students. Resources are tight and have not kept pace with rising need, and the district struggles to maintain these services and the added demands on staff they create.

If they are to meet the growing need, suburbs must bring these individual programs to scale. Doing so requires improving systems and networks, consolidating and coordinating efforts, and promoting organizations that get the job done.

One policy that might help that process is community applications for free and reduced price meals, which is coming to all states in 2014. Rather than asking parents to fill out eligibility paperwork, the program allows schools that served a substantial percentage of their students free and reduced price meals in the prior year to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all students school-wide. In addition, any school district can use this option as well. The district may implement community eligibility in one school, a group of schools, or district-wide.

Collaboration and building capacity on the ground in the suburbs must continue if we are to ensure that children, whether they live in the suburbs or the city, do not have to contend with a growling stomach. That’s something the nation, whether red state or blue state, can get behind.


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.