2014 June

In St. Louis County, Communities Join to Fight Suburban Poverty

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Sarah Jackson

In the St. Louis Region, because of a firm city boundary that was fixed by leaders here in 1876, much of the growth of the last two hundred years has had nowhere to go but into suburban communities that surround St. Louis proper. The region is highly suburban: 89 percent of the region’s residents live in the suburbs.

And although more than half of the poor population lives in suburbs nationally, the St. Louis region is ahead of this curve (or behind, depending on how you look at it) with almost three-quarters of its poor population living in suburban communities. The region saw poverty grow by 75 percent in only 12 years, and almost all of that growth (95 percent) took place in the suburbs. Today, nearly 119,000 poor people live in St. Louis County, almost 30,000 more poor residents than in the city itself.

The suburban county includes over 90 municipalities and more than 20 school districts, making cross-jurisdictional collaboration difficult. Despite these challenges, the region is piloting models that hold promise in combatting growing suburban poverty, thanks to some innovative local leadership here.

“None of this is splitting the atom or curing cancer,” says local leader Chris Krehmeyer. “The challenge is how do we direct resources in an integrated fashion in places, in geographies and then do that at scale.” Krehmeyer is the CEO of Beyond Housing, an organization that leads an innovative partnership among 24 inner-ring suburban communities, some with as few as five hundred or eight hundred people, located within the Normandy School District in St. Louis County.

The comprehensive initiative, called 24:1, began as an effort to address the foreclosure crisis and failing school district, and has since added the coordination of housing, jobs, economic development and health care.

We know how to solve some of these problems by themselves, Krehmeyer said on Stay Tuned, such as rehabbing housing, providing better health care, or improving social services. The challenge, he said, is whether “we have the political will and courage to say: ‘Can we provide enough?’”

For these small communities, like many across the country hit hard by foreclosures, the Great Recession, and growing suburban poverty, the ability to “provide enough” to effectively address these complex and related challenges hinges on capacity.

Unlike inner-city neighborhoods, which have dealt with poverty for decades, outlying suburban areas don’t have the same capacity to respond, both in terms of the local government and the nonprofits with community development expertise.

Some of these communities, Swanstrom said, “barely have a police force, let alone a housing planner.” Yet their collaborative work through Beyond Housing will allow them greater access to resources and comprehensive supports.

A targeted, comprehensive development strategy, 24:1 aims to facilitate collaboration across jurisdictional lines, to fight suburban poverty. Organizers are betting that their coordinated efforts will be more successful than single, fragmented interventions.

And they’ve had some notable successes.

The effort started in 2009 with a very community-driven planning process. Their website notes that they have held more than 52 community meetings as part of this process, with more than four hundred attendees. The partnership brings together mayors of the 24 municipalities, the school district, local nonprofits, UM−St. Louis, Washington University, and many other stakeholders in the region. Their community plan identifies 11 “impact areas” for future work including healthy residents, employment readiness and access, early childhood development, and community capacity building. They’ve helped bring community voice to recent controversies over school district governance and a controversial student transfer law.

Among their successes over the last 4 years include the investment of nearly $50 million in housing stock, the construction of a 16,000 square foot grocery store, and the creation of a youth impact continuum with the local school district including a universal college savings program. In 2014 they will begin construction on a movie theatre, health services facility and a 53 unit senior housing building.

Other models are worth noting in the region, including the work of the integrative workforce development initiatives at the MET Center with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Centers for Working Families, and the county’s data- and metric-driven strategic plan, which includes a specific focus on concentrated poverty and community development.

“Comprehensive approaches have much better outcomes than if you try to do these projects one at a time,” said the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s David Erickson, who spoke in St. Louis along with Elizabeth last month.

Systems aren’t set up to work cross-sector, and Erickson says it takes one entity to act in a quarterback role to work with existing systems as they are and “cajole and bring them together so they can provide that type of intervention that’s so effective.”

Elizabeth and Alan borrow the quarterback concept from the 2012 book Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, a joint project of the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF) and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. In the book, Erickson and coeditors Ian Galloway and Naomi Cytron envisioned quarterbacks as high-performing local organizations whose job was to “identify and build on . . . areas of leadership and strength, as well as to build capacity in the gaps.”

In St. Louis County, Beyond Housing—which sees its role as that of facilitator, convener, and doer—is an example others should look toward.

Homepage photo credit: Beyond Housing

Making Promise Zones Work for Suburbs

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Elizabeth Kneebone, Alan Berube, and Alicia Berenyi

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently sought comments on the selection process for the second round of Promise Zones. We submitted the following feedback on the proposed criteria.

The Promise Zone initiative offers an opportunity to better integrate federal funding flows and make place-based investments more effective in communities with high levels of poverty and a demonstrated commitment to revitalization. However, due to the current application process design, the program risks excluding communities that have become home to the largest and fastest growing poor population in recent years—the suburbs.

Between 2000 and 2012, the poor population in suburbs grew by 65 percent—more than twice the rate of growth in large cities (30 percent) and rural communities (28 percent). By 2012, more than 16.5 million residents in suburbia lived below the poverty line, surpassing the poor population in cities by 3 million people and exceeding the number of poor residents in rural areas by almost 8 million. To be sure, in 2012 the poverty rate in large cities (22 percent) and in rural communities (18 percent) remained higher than the suburban rate on average (12 percent). But today one in three poor residents in the United States live in suburban communities, outstripping cities (28 percent) and rural areas (16 percent) and marking a significant shift in the geography of American poverty compared to just a decade ago.

At the same time that poverty has become more regional in its reach, it also has become more concentrated in poor neighborhoods. While the majority of high-poverty neighborhoods remain located in large cities, suburbs account for a growing share of distressed census tracts. In 2000, 27 percent of the suburban poor population lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or more—the level at which research has shown the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge. By 2008-12 that share had climbed to 38 percent.

The increase in suburban poverty is due to a confluence of many factors: population growth, new immigration patterns, the continued outward shift of employment, the growing prevalence of low-wage jobs, and changes in the location of affordable housing. Due to these demographic and structural changes, suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country even prior to the Great Recession. The downturn only served to exacerbate these trends as it pushed the number of people living below the poverty line in the United States to record levels. Between 2007 and 2010, highly suburbanized industries like manufacturing and construction lost the most jobs among major industries. Following the collapse of the housing market and onset of the recession, overall unemployment rates in cities and suburbs rose by nearly equal degrees.

As the nation has moved into economic recovery, poverty has not abated. According to the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs made up just 21 percent of jobs lost during the downtown but 58 percent of the recovery’s gain. Many of these jobs are located in suburban communities and filled by suburban workers. By 2012, within the nation’s 100 largest metro areas 67 percent of workers in low-wage occupations lived in suburbs. Due to the intersection of complex economic and social dynamics, even amid economic recovery, poverty is and will continue to be a challenge shared by suburban communities.

The suburban poor face unique obstacles to economic stability and success. These include: limited access to transit; patchy, thinly-spread, and financially tenuous safety net services; and increased stresses on schools that are often ill-equipped to respond to rapid demographic and economic changes among their student populations and communities. Furthermore, both governmental and philanthropic funding for suburban communities has often lagged behind the rapidly shifting trends. The fragmented federal funding system—which was largely designed with distressed inner-city or rural communities in mind—has proven inflexible and difficult to navigate and adapt to the suburban context. These challenges reinforce the hardships the poor face, including unemployment and underemployment, lack of adequate housing, limited educational opportunities, and communities with insufficient resources to begin stitching together stronger support systems for the suburban poor.

Promise Zones could be an important tool for helping suburbs to overcome some of these obstacles. However, as currently written, the application process largely overlooks struggling suburbs. To make this program an effective tool for confronting suburban poverty, the following three issues should be addressed.

  1. The language of the Promise Zone application should be clarified to explicitly recognize suburban eligibility.

Applications are currently divided between Urban and Rural/Tribal Zones. Suburbs are excluded from the Rural Promise Zone designation, since Rural Promise Zones may not include any part of a metro county, but are not explicitly included in the Urban Zone application. A key challenge the suburban poor face is that perceptions about the magnitude of the problem are out of step with today’s reality. By not clearly incorporating suburban poverty into the application language, the Promise Zones initiative perpetuates an outdated perception about the geographic distribution of poverty in the country. By not specifically soliciting applications from suburban communities or coalitions, it is not clear to these prospective applicants that they are qualified to even apply for the designation.

  1. Communities should be able to use a combination of poverty rates and poor population counts to determine eligibility.

The focus on rates to determine potential zones and “Need” disadvantages suburban applicants. Potential Zones are required to have a poverty rate or Extremely Low Income rate of 33 percent. In addition, applications are scored according to various criteria out of 100 points, including ten points awarded based on “Need,” which is determined by poverty, crime, employment and vacancy rates. A suburban county may have more poor residents than its central city or other parts of the region, but may not register the same rates as smaller, urban neighborhoods. While counties could narrow in on high-poverty tracts for their Promise Zone application, they will be limited by the requirements that the proposed zone has a contiguous geography and a population of at least 10,000 residents. Drawing the boundaries of a potential suburban Promise Zone that could be competitive with inner-city applicants may result in a more fragmented and less-effectively scaled intervention. These issues could be addressed by introducing different parameters in a joint Urban/Suburban Zone application or by creating a third application process for non-principal city metropolitan jurisdictions. Rather than focusing exclusively on rates, in a suburban context it may make more sense to use a combination of rates and population counts, which could extend eligibility to potential zones that have poverty rates below the 33 percent threshold but are home to significant numbers of poor residents.

  1. The current application process should more explicitly encourage cross-jurisdictional, collaborative approaches.

While the application does state that Promise Zone activities can be carried out by a variety of organizations and organization types, this is only an implicit recognition of the type of multi-sector, multi-jurisdictional partnerships that are forming around the country to more effectively combat suburban poverty. The application should contain language that explicitly describes these types of collaborations as eligible entities. This is especially important in suburbs where limited local capacity would preclude many jurisdictions from being able to compete for or participate in this program on their own.

President Obama envisioned Promise Zones as a partnership between the federal government and local communities to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to adequate housing, and improve public safety. To ensure that this program has the opportunity to reach some of the communities most in need of the technical assistance and capacity building the Promise Zone initiative promises to deliver, the application language and process should be revised to explicitly recognize and include struggling suburbs.

Suburban—and Poor: The Changing Landscape of Race and Poverty in the U.S.

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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.

Unique challenges

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.


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.