Changing Suburbs, Poverty, and America’s Political Future

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  • April 03, 2014

VotingBlogBy Sarah Jackson

In the vast sprawl east of Los Angeles lie some of the fastest growing communities in the country. The Riverside-San Bernardino metro area grew 32.7 percent from 2000 to 2012. And it’s expected to keep growing, according to California’s Department of Finance.

In fact, if the state’s estimates are on track, Riverside County will have the largest population of any California county by 2060.

Once predominantly white and Republican, the area is now home to a growing population of African Americans and Latino immigrants and non-immigrants, many of whom were lured from Los Angeles by the region’s more affordable housing.

And it looks like these families are more likely to vote Democratic. Voters here elected three Democrats to Congress in 2012 (two Latinos and a gay Asian American), something the region has only done twice in 40 years. As LA Times writer Phil Willon notes, “Contests will be much harder to predict.”

More Americans now live in suburbs than in central cities, and more suburbs are starting to look as diverse as Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Brookings analysis shows that the majority of each of the country’s largest racial minority groups live in the suburbs.

And these new patterns of migration and minority suburbanization, experts say, may also create new voting patterns.

Center for American Progress’ Ruy Teixeira found in a 2008 report that demographic and geographic changes in the electorate may have the potential to alter some of the political polarization we see today.

Increasing suburban diversity may turn these places more “purple” in local and national elections, making them less reliable bases for either Republicans or Democrats who have depended on demographically homogeneous voting blocs.

Both parties may find it increasingly necessary to appeal to different suburban constituencies—white seniors looking to strengthen social security and Medicare, for example, as well as young minorities, who may be more interested in education, affordable housing and jobs programs.

“The views and preferences of the suburban majority,” Teixeira writes, “are driving American politics.’

Writing at Politico, Richard Florida argues that distressed suburbs are “the new swing states.”

“The old dichotomies—red state/blue state, city/suburb—are just too simplistic to capture today’s much more complex picture, which often as not is painted in shades of pink, purple and mauve.”

Another condition likely to play out in the voting booth is the growth of poverty in congressional districts that include suburbs (368 of the nation’s 435 congressional districts contain some portion of the suburbs with the 100 largest metropolitan areas today.)  In an analysis that followed the publication of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, Elizabeth and Alan and colleague Jane Williams find that many of those traditionally red suburbs now include a growing poor population among their constituents.

Communities in the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area have been hit hard by the Great Recession; the suburban poor population there increased 62.8 percent between 2000 to 2011.

Indeed, districts with the fastest growth in the suburban poor population during the 2000s leaned Republican, according to their analysis. And while Democrats still represent poorer suburbs than Republicans on average, the gap has narrowed.

What these changes mean for consensus politics remains to be seen, particularly as the suburban constituents are typically regarded as allergic to tax increases to fund social programs, but U.S. poverty, Elizabeth and Alan argue, is more than ever “a shared challenge—not just economically and socially, but also politically.”

Photo/ Columbia City Blog

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