Elizabeth Kneebone and Cary Lou
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Planning magazine.
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The year 1964 was a watershed year in American politics. In his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson placed civil rights and combating poverty at the center of his agenda when he said, “Many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”
The ambitious agenda he went on to outline ushered in the War on Poverty and his vision of a “Great Society” and led to the passage of several significant pieces of legislation. They included the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964—which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and racial segregation in schools and other public accommodations—as well as the creation of a bevy of programs aimed at alleviating poverty and increasing opportunity, particularly in distressed communities.
These laws still resonate 50 years later. Every year millions of residents are lifted out of poverty by programs that emerged in that era—from Medicare and Medicaid to food stamps—and others that followed after, like the Earned Income Tax Credit.
However, five decades later, 15 percent of the nation’s population—a record 46 million people—lives below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012). Today, the nation is much more racially and ethnically diverse than in 1964—and people of color remain disproportionately poor.
African Americans accounted for 13 percent of the nation’s population in 2012, but more than 20 percent of the poor population. Similarly, Latinos—who make up 17 percent of the total population—accounted for 27 percent of individuals in poverty in that year. Both groups continue to register poverty rates above 25 percent, compared to nine percent for non-Hispanic whites, who comprise 63 percent of the total population but only 41 percent of the poor population.
Many of the challenges that President Johnson targeted in his speech—like the need for better schools, jobs, and healthcare—persist for many low-income residents and communities. But the landscape of race and poverty has changed markedly from the one he evoked in 1964. Five decades ago, the front lines of the War on Poverty were in distressed inner-city neighborhoods and remote rural communities. Today, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in suburban communities than in big cities or in rural areas, and the same is true of the poor.
Changing landscape: race and poverty
Shifts in the demographic and economic geography of the U.S. have been unfolding for decades, but the 2000s witnessed historic tipping points on both fronts. Within the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, the share of African Americans living in suburbs rose from 44 percent in 2000 to 51 percent by 2010, so that for the first time more than half of every minority group in large metro areas lived in the suburbs. (These figures, like most of the others noted in this article, were derived from recent reports by the Brookings Institution.)
In that decade, the number of suburban poor surpassed that of the urban poor. Between 2000 and 2012 the suburban poor population grew by 65 percent—more than twice the pace of growth in cities. By 2012, the suburbs were home to 16.5 million poor residents—or 55 percent of the poor population in large metro areas—outstripping the urban poor population by three million.
Whereas the poor population in suburbs is more likely to be white than in cities (43 percent versus 23 percent), the share of poor residents of color living in suburban communities rose at a much faster pace compared to whites during the 2000s: By 2012, 47 percent of racial and ethnic minorities in poverty lived in the suburbs, up almost eight percentage points from 39 percent in 2000. Among poor whites, almost 70 percent lived in suburbs in 2012, an increase of almost four percentage points over 2000.
Poverty has not grown evenly across places. Overall poverty rates remain higher in cities than suburbs, reaching 22 percent versus 12 percent in 2012, respectively. However, even as poverty has spread outward—touching inner-ring, older suburbs as well as lower density, exurban communities—it has also increasingly clustered and concentrated in high-poverty suburban neighborhoods.
While the average neighborhood poverty rate in the suburbs remains lower than in comparable urban neighborhoods, in the last half of the 2000s, one-third of the suburban poor population lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of at least 20 percent—the threshold at which research by George Glaster and others has shown the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge.
Multiple forces at work
Almost every major metro area, whether Sun Belt or Rust Belt, growing or declining, saw its suburban poor population grow during the 2000s—from Austin and Atlanta, to the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, to Cleveland and Detroit. Across these major metro areas, the growth of suburban poverty, and its particularly rapid rise during the 2000s, stems from a combination of economic and demographic factors.
On one hand, suburbs continued to add population at a faster pace than large cities over the decade, becoming more demographically and economically diverse in the process. To some extent, this reflects shifting immigration patterns, as new immigrants increasingly bypassed cities and moved directly to suburban communities. Roberto Suro and his colleagues at Brookings found that, while immigrants accounted for 30 percent of suburban population growth during the 2000s, on average they contributed just 17 percent to the increase in the poor population in suburbs.
Regional housing markets also helped shape these trends, from changing home prices (suburban housing stock aging into affordability or increased housing prices in redeveloping urban neighborhoods) to shifts in the use of portable subsidies. By the late 2000s, Kenya Covington and her colleagues found that nearly half of Housing Choice Voucher recipients in the nation’s largest metro areas lived in suburbs.
Suburbs also bore the brunt of the subprime lending boom and foreclosure crisis that followed. Almost three-quarters of subprime loans originated in the easy credit boom of the mid-2000s were located in suburban communities, and suburbs have been home to nearly three-quarters of foreclosures after the housing market collapse.
The 2000s also saw employment continue to shift outward in almost every major metro area. By 2010, 43 percent of jobs in the nation’s largest metro areas were located more than 10 miles from downtown; 23 percent were located within three miles of downtown. Industries including manufacturing, construction, and retail services tend to be even more suburbanized, with at least half of each industry’s jobs located 10 miles or more from downtown. These industries were also among the hardest hit during the Great Recession. Together they accounted for 60 percent of job losses in the nation’s largest metro areas between 2007 and 2010, with half of those losses occurring more than 10 miles away from downtown.
Those figures underscore that, even more so than low-income residents moving to suburbia, growing suburban poverty has been fueled by shifts in regional economies that have pushed many long-term suburban residents down the economic ladder. The 2000s brought two economic downturns, followed by sluggish and uneven recoveries. Partly because of the housing-led nature of the Great Recession, suburbs bore the brunt of the downturn more than they had in past recessions. Growth in the suburban unemployed population outstripped that in cities in the first year of the recession and rose by similar degrees in the second, pushing urban and suburban unemployment rates up by similar margins—4.7 and 4.4 percentage points—between 2000 and 2010.
Cyclical changes in the economy, though dramatic and disruptive in recent years, were not the only economic forces to drive suburban poverty. Structural changes to the economy, as middle wage jobs in productive sectors like manufacturing gave way to an increasing share of lower-wage service sector jobs, contributed to declines in the typical household income even before the onset of the recession.
These structural changes continued in the economic recovery following the Great Recession. The National Employment Law Project found that, although low-wage jobs accounted for just 21 percent of jobs lost during the downturn, they made up 58 percent of the recovery’s gains. Today, about two-thirds of workers employed in lower wage occupations—like sales, food preparation and service, and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance—live in the suburbs.
Together, these trends suggest that economic recovery alone will not suffice to reverse the shift of poverty toward suburbia. Instead poverty, and its challenges, will continue to be a regional issue, affecting cities and suburbs alike.
Just as suburbs are diverse, the experience of suburban poverty differs depending on the community in question and the opportunities (or obstacles) it presents. Whereas a suburb that offers access to safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, and good jobs, schools, and services can provide pathways to economic stability and success, many poor suburban residents find themselves in communities that lack the infrastructure and support systems that central cities have put in place over decades.
Finding reliable and affordable transportation can prove challenging for many poor residents in the suburbs, where public transit options are often limited. Even residents with access to transit in a low-income suburban neighborhood can reach only 25 percent of the region’s jobs within a 90-minute commute—and only four percent within 45 minutes. However, many low-income individuals cannot afford the costs of buying and maintaining a reliable car, making it that much more difficult for suburban workers to reach employment opportunities in other parts of the region.
Limited transit options can also make it difficult for low-income suburban households to access safety net services—such as food pantries, subsidized child care, affordable health care, or job training and employment programs—which tend to be thinner and patchier than the array of services typically available in large urban centers. Many suburban providers have seen demand for services climb in recent years, with a growing number of residents coming in for assistance who have never had connections with the safety net before.
Schools have also experienced this growing need. Over the last half of the 2000s, suburban schools saw the number of students eligible for free and reduced price lunches increase at a faster pace than in urban districts, climbing 22 percent and eight percent, respectively. In a resource-strained environment with limited safety net options, many districts—like those involved in the Road Map Project in Seattle’s South suburbs or Mapleton Public Schools in the Denver suburbs—have stepped in to meet the needs of their low-income students and community members by offering wraparound services like food and clothing pantries, and mental health, dentistry, and medical services, often partnering with service providers and raising philanthropic funds for additional resources to supplement strained budgets.
Part of the challenge for suburban service providers and school districts alike has been a lag in philanthropic funding to respond to these trends. In many major metro areas, philanthropic funding for services targeted to low-income populations remain disproportionately targeted to cities, and relatively few resources have been dedicated to building suburban capacity. In addition, local perceptions of where poverty is located and whom it affects are often out of step with today’s reality, complicating efforts by suburban providers to attract resources for the growing suburban poor population.
Policy and practice have also lagged behind the shifting geography of poverty. In his State of the Union speech, President Johnson called on Congress and the nation to pursue poverty “wherever it exists—in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations. . . in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.”
Place-based anti-poverty programs have proliferated in the decades that followed, but they remain largely targeted to distressed inner-city neighborhoods or struggling rural communities. None of these programs was designed with suburbs in mind.
Moreover, the roughly $82 billion that the federal government invests annually in place-based anti-poverty programs is spread across 10 agencies and 81 programs, creating a fragmented and often inflexible policy framework that does not easily map onto the suburban landscape—itself a fragmented mix of communities with varying levels of capacity and ability to navigate the current system.
Moving toward solutions
The answer to these challenges is not to try to recreate in suburbs the community development and service infrastructure that has been built up in cities since the War on Poverty. Given the urgency and scope of today’s need, the time and resources required to undertake such a proposition simply do not exist. Rather, as suburbs increasingly grapple with the challenges of poverty alongside cities, policy and practice need to focus on strategies that operate at a more effective regional scale, using limited dollars strategically to do more than one thing in more than one place at the same time and improve outcomes for urban and suburban residents alike.
If the best anti-poverty program is a job, then the goal of place-based anti-poverty policies should be to better connect residents to the kinds of economic opportunities—including quality education and good jobs—that offer a path out of poverty. Making that goal a reality for low-income urban and suburban residents requires strategies that cut across jurisdictional boundaries and policy silos, and link up decisions around affordable housing, transportation, services, and community and economic development at the regional level.
One approach won’t work everywhere. On the contrary, while interventions should be targeted to diverse local needs and assets, those efforts will be more effective if they are linked to and grounded in a regional context.
Major metro areas across the country, including Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have crafted regional planning strategies that encompass housing, transportation, and jobs. As regions increasingly pursue these types of integrated strategies, equity should be a stated priority. Without an explicit focus on how these decisions affect outcomes for low-income and minority residents, regional strategies may fail to make critical connections between these residents and areas of economic opportunity, or may even isolate them further.
In the Denver region, Mile High Connects—a local collaboration of more than 20 banks, foundations, and nonprofits—formed with the mission to ensure that all residents in the metro area, including low-income and disadvantaged communities, benefit from the build-out of the regional FasTracks transit system by better connecting transit to jobs, education, affordable housing, and services. Other tools have emerged in the region to help realize that goal, including the Denver Region Equity Atlas and the Denver Transit Oriented Development Fund.
The Equity Atlas provides critical data resources to help stakeholders identify where job, housing, education, and health care options are located in the region and where gaps or barriers to opportunity might exist. The TOD Fund, which will be expanded region-wide in 2014, leverages public and private funding to increase access to affordable housing, jobs, and services around transit sites.
These initiatives are examples of the kinds of scaled, collaborative, and outcome-focused strategies emerging in major metro across the country. Fifty years after President Johnson’s seminal speech, the innovations taking place in these regions point the way toward a modernized policy and practice agenda to more effectively connect low-income and minority residents to opportunity regionwide.