Suburban Poverty in the US, in the UK

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  • May 07, 2015

Alan Berube

I had the chance to travel to London and Birmingham last week to speak to local audiences about the suburbanization of poverty in the United States. I was hosted by colleagues at the Smith Institute, who have studied this similar phenomenon in major English and Welsh regions.

The Smith Institute’s research shows that, as in the United States, most low-income people in England and Wales (57 percent) live in suburban areas. Poverty is defined differently in the UK, as are “suburbs,” (see the slides below) but some of the challenges facing poor individuals in UK suburbs–more limited access to transit, services, and jobs–mirror those facing their counterparts in America.

Nonetheless, many of the reasons that UK regions are exhibiting high and rising suburban poverty are distinct from those driving poverty’s suburbanization in U.S. regions. For one thing, suburbs in England contain large amounts of permanently affordable “social” housing. With the London Society, we toured the South Acton estate, in the suburban London borough of Ealing, which currently has about about 1,800 units of social housing, and is being redeveloped to contain 2,500 units of mixed-income housing. Representatives from suburban Birmingham local authorities such as Sandwell and Wolverhampton expressed concern over the lack of economic opportunities in and around their large council estates. By contrast, most American suburbs were originally developed for middle-class homeowners, and do not contain anywhere near this amount of permanently affordable housing, if they contain any at all.

Gentrification and affordability pressures also seem to be even more pronounced in Greater London than in most major U.S. metro areas. Greater London encompasses 33 separate boroughs, which are commonly separated into 12 “Inner London” boroughs closest to the urban core, and 21 “Outer London” boroughs that are more suburban in character. Since 2010, according to the Smith Institute, Inner London has added 500,000 jobs, while Outer London has added only 10,000 jobs. One only need gaze at the massive high-rise developments going up along the Thames River, or in the Old Street area of Islington/Hackney, to get a sense of the price pressures that are pushing more low-income residents into further-flung areas of the capital. Similar disparities may emerge in Birmingham, whose center-city is rapidly reviving while southern, manufacturing-focused areas of the city face deeper economic struggles.

Despite these differences, there were many points of connection in these dialogues with U.S. experiences around issues such as transit-oriented development, whether and how to invest in service delivery in suburbs, and the efficacy of raising minimum wages locally. Whether and when the UK invests in stimulating a “suburban renaissance” like the urban one it kick-started more than a decade ago may turn on the results of Thursday’s general election.

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