New Census Data Show Few Metro Areas Made Progress Against Poverty in 2013

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According to an analysis of 2013 American Community Survey, four years into an economic recovery, most major metro areas had yet to make progress toward reducing poverty to pre-recession levels. Where gains did occur, they tended to happen in big cities, further accelerating a long-term trend in the suburbanization of U.S. poverty and the challenges that accompany it.

Read the new report>>

ACS brief image

Homepage photo credit: Flickr user @waitscm


Homelessness among Students Is Up Sharply in the Suburbs

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Barbara Ray

In 2010, Penny Scrivner, a retired Greyhound bus driver, had a new job. Every morning, she swung by motels, abandoned cars, and street corners to pick up homeless children for school.

“I’ve picked up kids waiting on street corners,” she told the Oregonian in 2010. “They don’t have an address. I just know they’ll be standing there waiting.”

That morning she pulled over to an apartment building, where a family was living temporarily, to pick up a group of siblings.

“Penny,” one of the girls asks after the door shuts, “can I have a hug?”

“Oh, honey,” Scrivner says, “yes you can.”

school bus thumbThe 22 kids on the bus that day were on their way to Portland’s Community Transitional School, a private institution serving homeless and poor families. The school serves kids who live in school districts throughout the Portland metro area, Marcia Harris, the school’s development coordinator, told the Oregonian.

As school starts again this August, they’ll be joining thousands of students throughout the nation whose families are struggling with poverty and hardship. And increasingly that hardship is in the suburbs.

In many metro areas, suburban poverty is on the rise for a variety of reasons, including growing hardship during and following the recession.

In the Indianapolis metro area, for example, the number of homeless students in the suburbs (outside of Marion County) has grown sharply since 2007, the Indianapolis Star reported. Indiana’s Hendricks County, for example, has seen a 500-percent increase in the number of homeless students in the past five years. In 2013, 241 students were homeless, up from 40 in 2007. In fact, all counties in the metro area have seen increases in homeless students; the smallest increase was 24 percent in Putnam County.

The story is the same in the suburbs of Chicago, where in northwest suburban Cook County, according to the Daily Herald, “there are 55 percent more homeless students than two years ago. In DuPage and Lake counties the numbers have risen by more than 35 percent.” The statewide average change is a 17 percent increase.

The rise is driven by several factors, including a sluggish economy, fallout from the foreclosure crisis, low-wage jobs, fewer social services in the suburbs to catch families before they fall, and better identification by schools of homeless students.

classroom thumbOften in the suburbs, need exceeds available help. In the Washington, DC, metro area, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute and the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region,5,301 families were homeless in the region in January 2013, 4,406 of them in communities beyond the city center. Yet in those communities, shelters or transitional housing had only 2,529 beds for persons in families. The study area included Montgomery, Prince George’s, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties and the communities of Alexandria and Arlington.

The report finds that a typical homeless family is headed by a single mom in her late 20s with two young children. She also is likely working. In Loudoun County, Alexandria, or Arlington, for example, more than two-thirds of homeless adults in families were employed.

In the Inland Empire just east of Los Angeles, a region still struggling to recover from the housing crash, Larry Ellwell, principal of Victoria Elementary School in San Bernardino, told the New York Times that he was stunned by the number of families who could not afford necessities like clothes and dental care. He was also alarmed by the lack of services. In LA proper, where he’d worked before, families knew where to find help. In the suburbs, that’s not the case.

Indeed, as we’ve written before, “In many cases, schools are often a hub for delivering services . . . and frequently are the only place to which kids and parents will turn when their families are in need.”

“What we have out here,” Dom Betro, executive director of Family Services in Riverside County, told the Times, “is more need and fewer centers of resources. . . . Even if there is help—and that’s not always—people who need it can’t get to it.”

school busesMore suburbs should follow the lead of Denver, where a 2013 survey showed that families make up the largest percentage of homeless in the suburbs there. But Denver is beginning to coordinate its suburban services, Alexxa Gagner, spokeswoman for the Denver Rescue Mission, told the Denver Post. “One of the great things that’s happened in Denver is different service agencies have gotten out of their silos,” she said.

As Elizabeth wrote recently, the path out of poverty for suburban families “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.” The same applies to crafting effective strategies to address the growing homeless population many suburban school districts will be facing this year.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons user PRA

Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty

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Cross-posted on Brookings’ Metro blog, The Avenue

Elizabeth Kneebone

Nearly a week after the death of 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., protests continue in the 21,000-person suburban community on St. Louis’ north side and around the nation.

Amid the social media and news coverage of the community’s response to the police shooting of the unarmed teenager, a picture of Ferguson and its history has emerged.

The New York Times and others have described the deep-seated racial tensions and inequalities that have long plagued the St. Louis region, as well as the dramatic demographic transformation of Ferguson from a largely white suburban enclave (it was 85 percent white as recently as 1980) to a predominantly black community (it was 67 percent black by 2008-2012).

But Ferguson has also been home to dramatic economic changes in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.

Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.

These changes affected neighborhoods throughout Ferguson. At the start of the 2000s, the five census tracts that fall within Ferguson’s border registered poverty rates ranging between 4 and 16 percent. However, by 2008-2012 almost all of Ferguson’s neighborhoods had poverty rates at or above the 20 percent threshold at which the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge. (One Ferguson tract had a poverty rate of 13.1 percent in 2008-2012, while the remaining tracts fell between 19.8 and 33.3 percent.)

Census Tract-Level Poverty Rates in St. Louis County, 2000

Census Tract-Level Poverty Rates in St. Louis County, 2000

Census Tract-Level Poverty Rates in St. Louis County, 2008-12

Census Tract-Level Poverty Rates in St. Louis County, 2008-12

As dramatic as the growth in economic disadvantage has been in this community, Ferguson is not alone.

Within the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, the number of suburban neighborhoods where more than 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line more than doubled between 2000 and 2008-2012. Almost every major metro area saw suburban poverty not only grow during the 2000s but also become more concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods. By 2008-2012, 38 percent of poor residents in the suburbs lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. For poor black residents in those communities, the figure was 53 percent.

Like Ferguson, many of these changing suburban communities are home to out-of-step power structures, where the leadership class, including the police force, does not reflect the rapid demographic changes that have reshaped these places.

Suburban areas with growing poverty are also frequently characterized by many small, fragmented municipalities; Ferguson is just one of 91 jurisdictions in St. Louis County. This often translates into inadequate resources and capacity to respond to growing needs and can complicate efforts to connect residents with economic opportunities that offer a path out of poverty.

And as concentrated poverty climbs in communities like Ferguson, they find themselves especially ill-equipped to deal with impacts such as poorer education and health outcomes, and higher crime rates. In an article for Salon, Brittney Cooper writes about the outpouring of anger from the community, “Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream.”

None of this means that there are 1,000 Fergusons-in-waiting, but it should underscore the fact that there are a growing number of communities across the country facing similar, if quieter, deep challenges every day.

Concentrated Poverty in the News

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Here is a roundup of some of the national and regional coverage Elizabeth’s brief The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-12 has received since its release two weeks ago.

The Washington Post, Poverty consolidated and spread to the suburbs during the 2000s, report finds

GovBeat’s Niraj Chokshi discusses the growth of poor suburban neighborhoods, their shifting geography and demographics, and the growth in share of suburban poor living in very poor neighborhoods.

Read the article>>

Time, The Rise of Suburban Poverty in America

The overwhelming majority of metro areas in the US saw their suburban poor populations grow—and grow more concentrated—between 2000 and 2008-12. This trend predates the Great Recession, and is the result of many factors. On the ground, social service providers around the country must contend with the changing geography of concentrated disadvantage.

Read the article>>

CityLab, The Great Recession Cemented Suburban Poverty

Kriston Capps writes: “If the best tools geared toward alleviating poverty are designed for urban centers, then they may be rendered increasingly ineffective by the new geography—with poverty spreading to areas with lower density, less transit, and fewer services.”

Read the article>>

Vox, The amazingly rapid suburbanization of poverty

The 2000s saw a reversal of progress made toward reducing concentrated poverty in the late-1990s. The proliferation of poor neighborhoods, particularly in suburban communities, suggests a need for additional affordable housing in suburbs.

Read the article>>

Slate, The Frightening Growth of Suburban Slums

Despite the lingering perception that poverty is strictly an urban phenomenon, the growth of concentrated poverty in suburbs may represent what author Jordan Weissmann calls the “worst of all possible worlds”: the negative effects of poor neighborhoods, transported to areas that may lack safety net services and access to opportunity.

Read the article>>

The Dallas Observer, Recent Study Shows Poverty in DFW Suburbs Has Doubled in the Past 12 Years

Between 2000 and 2008-12, Dallas-Fort Worth’s metro area poor population grew by 65 percent, and the share of poor residents living in poor neighborhoods grew by 16 percentage points.

Read the article>>

Colorado Springs Independent, In the poorhouse now

Among the 100 largest metro areas in the country, Colorado Springs saw the largest increase in the share of its suburban poor living in high-poverty neighborhoods between 2000 and 2008-12. J. Adrian Stanley investigates the local causes and consequences of Colorado Springs’s shifting geography of poverty.

Read the article>>

Mayors Take Aim at Inequality, but is That the Right Target?

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Cross-posted on Brookings’ Metro Blog, The Avenue

Alan Berube

Monday, a special U.S. Conference of Mayors task force released a report documenting growing income disparities in U.S. metro areas. The Cities of Opportunity Task Force is chaired by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, two of the most prominent mayors elected last fall on platforms to reduce inequities within their cities.

The analysis and the mayors’ response to it highlight the difficult situation these leaders face.

The statistics in the report, authored by IHS Global Insight, demonstrate that in most places, inequality is increasing. In about two-thirds of metro areas, average incomes grew faster (or shrank more slowly) than median incomes from 2005 to 2012, suggesting that more income has become concentrated among richer households.

It makes sense from an economic standpoint to look at metro areas, since they best approximate the regional labor markets driving these income dynamics. Yet it also highlights the mismatch between the purview of mayors, who run the administrative cities at the heart of those metro areas, and the bigger metropolitan—and indeed, global—economic forces with which they are trying to contend. For instance, Mayor DeBlasio has jurisdiction over New York City’s 8.3 million citizens, but they represent fewer than half of the New York metro area’s 19.8 million residents. Meanwhile, Mayor Walsh runs a city that is home to only one in seven residents of the Greater Boston area.

A report we released earlier this year found that big cities are actually experiencing faster-growing income disparities than their wider metro areas. That explains the political saliency of inequality in big cities today. But it may be a bridge too far for them to attack “inequality,” that is, the economic distance between low- and high-income residents. Inequality may be important context for social mobility, but national and state policymakers are much better positioned to address it directly.

None of this means mayors should sit on their hands, especially given increased gridlock in Washington and state capitals. Rather, they can focus on how to make their cities more effective engines for economic mobility. Higher local minimum wages and better worker benefits can be part of such a strategy, as can high-quality early education, two prongs of the task force agenda moving forward. Yet economic development policies—fostering good jobs and aligning training accordingly—and housing/land use decisions—preserving and expanding affordable and middle-class communities—are also important mobility levers that mayors shouldn’t overlook.

Meanwhile, big city mayors should reach out and work with their wider metropolitan counterparts on issues that affect mobility. Washington, D.C. recently did this with its Maryland suburbs on minimum wage increases. Seattle has worked with King County to preserve public transportation.

The mayors deserve credit for keeping a critical economic issue on the political front burner. But they should be sure to pick the right target for their efforts, one where they can achieve meaningful progress toward making their places true cities of opportunity.

Regional Coordination among Governments Can Combat Suburban Poverty

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Barbara Ray

When I was a kid growing up in a small town, the phone in my sister’s house would ring with a different tone to alert my brother-in-law to a fire. When the phone rang, he’d drop everything and run the three blocks to the firehouse and join a dozen or so other volunteers to put out the fire. Our town was too small to warrant a full-time fire department—or many other services for that matter. (We were, however, bigger than the nearby town of Bolan, Iowa, pop. 33—and 16 in 1989 when the entire town joined David Letterman on stage.)

Governance in towns such as Bolan or Glen Echo Park (pop. 160; 37 families) outside St. Louis, a region Elizabeth recently visited, is often a straightforward affair—until, that is, help is needed or disaster strikes.

At a recent meeting in St. Louis County, Elizabeth was discussing the importance of smart governance in combatting growing suburban poverty when a Glen Echo Park elected official raised her hand. Glen Echo Park, she said, has two streets and no retail or businesses, and about one-fourth of the homes are vacant. They needed better housing code enforcement, but where were they to turn? Glen Echo Park is just one of more than 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, which itself is just one county in the St. Louis metro area.

She’s not alone. Glen Echo’s problems are shared by many other regions, albeit on a different scale. The eight-county Chicago metro area is home to 9 million residents and 1,226 different units of government. In the Chicago metro, townships, municipalities, counties, and other levels of government overlap, create redundancies, and compete for resources, making coordination nearly impossible. The numerous small municipalities mean that many of the region’s poor live in small communities, often with tiny governments that are stretched thin. “Where are they to turn?” applies there, too.

As Jon Davis wrote in the Building Resilient Regions blog about Denver and Chicago’s different approaches to governance, “Strong suburban governments in Denver make policy implementation much easier than in Chicago, where ‘fragmented and weak local governments . . . present a major obstacle even to secure funding to address growing poverty.’”

A recent paper by Rebecca Hendrick and Karen Mossberger examined the ability of townships and municipalities in the Chicago metro region to deliver services amid growing poverty. Even before the 2008 recession and housing crisis, the authors found that 20 to 30 percent of the townships surveyed believed they could meet only a fraction of the demand for services in their community. Municipalities are even worse off. Of the 30 municipalities in the southern suburbs of Chicago, only one is designated as a Community Development Block Grant Program recipient, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute’s Rolf Pendall, University of California Berkeley’s Margaret Weir, and Urban Institute’s Chris Narducci. Most must rely on overburdened Cook County.

One option is to consolidate these many layers and levels of government. Although that’s a good option in many cases, it’s not always so. Consolidating mental health services, for example, might mean longer drives for suburban residents, and a 2003 study shows that people were substantially more likely to use mental health services if there was a provider within three miles of their home. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), in a recent assessment, argued that consolidation should be done on a case-by-case basis. A report by a commission, assembled to determine whether consolidating governments in Illinois was a smart move, came to a similar conclusion that cooperation between governments was as important as consolidating them.  (Ohio is an example of a state playing a helpful role in overcoming fragmentation. There, the Local Government Innovation Fund channels state funding to communities to assess when it makes sense to coordinate services or actually consolidate.)

Pendall, Weir, Narducci, and others argue that when government capacity is as low as it is in the Chicago suburbs or Glen Echo Park, regional approaches can boost local resilience. Examples of this regional approach are emerging, albeit slowly. A new brief by Robin Snyderman and Beth Dever of BRicK Partners on our website points to successes in coordination. Civic organizations in Chicago, such as the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Chicago Metropolis 2020, and the region’s philanthropic community have long championed the importance of regional coordination.

Elizabeth also discusses promising progress in Kansas City in her recent blog post, and as we recently wrote, the 24:1 initiative in St. Louis began as a coordinated effort to stem the foreclosure crisis and has now turned its attention to the coordination of housing, jobs, economic development, and health care.

In the San Francisco, the OneBayArea project is coordinating efforts among the Bay Area’s nine counties and 101 towns and cities to create a more sustainable future, with an initial focus on transit-oriented development. Its 2013 Plan Bay Area was a joint plan by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). As Commission Chair and Orinda Mayor Amy Rein Worth noted in their press release, ““For decades, MTC has been charged by state and federal law to produce a long-term regional transportation plan, while ABAG has been responsible for assessing regional housing needs. Plan Bay Area puts these elements together in a way that makes sense.” The Plan promotes compact, mixed-use commercial and residential development close to mass transit, jobs, schools, and other amenities. The focus areas include regional centers like downtown San Jose to suburban centers like Walnut Creek’s West Downtown area.

Most of us rarely think about how the lights stay on or the fires get put out, let alone who helps meet the needs of families on the brink of disaster. That’s the role of governments and smart governance. Whether fractured and parochial like Chicago or, like Glen Echo Park, a municipality too small to marshal a response, the problem of responding to growing need is similar. Increasingly, the problem calls for a regional solution.

Homepage photo credit: Flickr user Pete Zarria

Does Inequality Matter for Mobility? A Metro View

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Cross-posted on Brookings’ Social Mobility Memos blog

Alan Berube

Standard and Poor’s issued a new report this week arguing that high levels of inequality may be retarding U.S. economic growth, moving debates around the effects of inequality further into the mainstream.

The Unresolved Debate about Mobility and Inequality

One particularly contentious axis of the debate about inequality has focused on whether there’s any connection between income inequality and intergenerational mobility. Former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers Alan Krueger popularized the Great Gatsby curve, based on research from Miles Corak at the University of Ottawa, which portrays that countries exhibiting higher levels of inequality also experience lower levels of mobility across generations.

Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute and Donald Schneider of Heritage, as chronicled on this blogchallenged that interpretation in a piece late last year (as well as in subsequent writings). The two researchers made use of great new data from the Equality of Opportunity project at Harvard and UC-Berkeley which measure US income mobility at the metropolitan scale by pairing the tax returns of parents and children across 30 years. Winship and Schneider ultimately find no significant relationship between the project’s measures of inequality and mobility for “commuting zones,” which approximate urban and rural economic regions.

Why Look at Mobility from a Metro Angle?

Inequality at the metropolitan scale could affect mobility over time if, for example, it leads to more racially and economically segregated neighborhoods and schools. The Harvard and Berkeley researchers find that low-income children growing up in metro areas with higher levels of segregation made less progress up the income ladder over time. Similarly, Melissa Kearney of Brookings’ Hamilton Project finds that high school dropout rates and non-marital childbearing rates, factors also associated with lower income mobility for the poor, are higher in areas characterized by more inequality.

To investigate whether metro-level inequality might affect metro-level mobility, I plotted the average Gini coefficient (a standard income inequality measure, derived from Census Bureau data) for metro areas in 1980 and 2011 against the Harvard/Berkeley measure of intergenerational mobility for those same metro areas (provided on their website), which they calculated across a similar time period. It suggests that, in fact, metro areas where inequality is higher tend to show lower rates of intergenerational income mobility. The relationship is actually a little bit stronger among the 100 largest metro areas (depicted below), where the difference between a low-inequality metro like Boise and a high-inequality metro like Chicago translates into a predicted 3 percentile lower adult income for a child growing up in a 25th percentile family.


Is that a lot? Not exactly. Is it causation rather than simple correlation? I’m not sure. But it’s a reminder that efforts to promote social mobility—through channels such as education, norms around family formation, or economic development—ultimately take shape in local places that have their own distinctive economic dynamics, inequality among them. Whether or not there’s truly a “Metro Great Gatsby curve,” inequality warrants attention as potentially important context for those efforts in metro areas.

Job Growth, Without Smart Planning, Can Still Leave Many Behind

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Barbara Ray and Sarah Jackson

In 2011, the suburbs of Cleveland were profiled in a New York Times story about growing suburban poverty in the United States. The story documented places such as Parma Heights and Warrensville Heights, once known for their “good schools, manicured lawns and middle-class neighbors.” Those neighborhoods today are grappling with something new, growing poverty.

In 2000, 46 percent of the metro area’s poor were suburban residents. By 2012, 56 percent were. As the Times documents, once middle-class communities now have long lines at local food banks, and municipal governments struggle to help poor residents on tight, post-recession budgets.

It was only in 2011 that the Northeast Ohio region saw its first full year of job growth since the Great Recession. The region, with a population of more than 4 million, encompasses four metro areas (Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown) and includes nearly $200 billion in economic activity. The area was lauded by Brookings’ Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in their book “The Metropolitan Revolution” for its work to bring jobs in high tech and advanced manufacturing to the area through a partnership between the region’s Fund for Our Economic Future, MAGNET, and the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation.

Yet the region’s economy isn’t reviving for everyone. The challenge for metropolitan Cleveland–and the Northeast Ohio region more broadly–will be to ensure that everyone is connected to economic opportunity regardless of ZIP code, skill level, or income status.

“Northeast Ohio is, in fact, in a recovery, but it is slow,” Emily Garr Pacetti, who directs research at the Fund for Our Economic Future, told us. “As we begin to grow jobs again, research tells us we need to pay attention to the quality of those jobs, where they are and who is getting them just as much–if not more so–than the jobs number itself.” In Northeast Ohio specifically, more than 200,000 residents live in low-income neighborhoods where less than 65 percent of the working-age population (25-64) are connected to the workforce.  Although many of these residents are concentrated in larger cities, many are not. These residents are spread across 10 counties and over 40 municipalities.

Economically Distressed Neighborhoods in Canton, Massillon and Plain Township Source: The Fund for Our Economic Future

Economically Distressed Neighborhoods in Canton, Massillon and Plain Township
Source: The Fund for Our Economic Future

Economically Distressed Neighborhoods in Lorain and Elyria Source: The Fund for Our Economic Future

Economically Distressed Neighborhoods in Lorain and Elyria
Source: The Fund for Our Economic Future

There is, she says, a “surprising disconnect between job growth and income gains that challenges this region and many others to look at growth more sustainably than in the past.” The Fund’s 2013 study, “What Matters to Metros,” assessed 115 midsized metro areas, finding that those that experienced some of the fastest job growth between 1990 and 2011 tended to have higher income inequality, crime, and poverty following the recession. In other words, a “job” didn’t always lead to income growth, with many residents either stuck in low-paying jobs or lacking access to opportunities to advance up the income ladder.

As Manuel Pastor and Chris Benner stress in their recent book, “Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America’s Metropolitan Regions,” job growth alone is not enough. They too find ample examples of regional and metropolitan economies experiencing rapid economic growth but also rapid polarization and inequality. They argue that more than just growth, we need “just” growth that allows for broader access to education, training, and capital. Their research shows that economies that focus on equity-driven growth can be more productive in the long run.

In a follow-up publication from the Fund for Our Economic Future, Garr Pacetti argues likewise that collaborative, and, importantly, regional approaches can better help connect growth and opportunity for residents. This approach, Garr Pacetti argues, is a significant shift in how communities work together to design and align their economic and community development strategies, and to strengthen connections between where people work and live.

One example of a well-aligned, collaborative approach is workforce development. The Fund has invested more than $2 million over four years to support WorkAdvance, which uses an integrated workforce development model to help unemployed and low-wage workers find quality jobs in targeted sectors that have room for advancement within established career pathways. In Northeast Ohio, the program is serving employers in health care and manufacturing in and around Cleveland and Youngstown metro areas.

Rather than taking a mishmash of community college courses or retraining for a job that won’t exist in three years, Ohioans can train for jobs that match local employer needs. For example, hospitality employers in the region have helped design a customized class for those interested in the field, combined with a four-week, on-the-job training experience. A recent evaluation by Public/Private Ventures of similar programs found strong evidence that these approaches increased earnings and resulted in more consistent employment.

The Fund for Our Economic Future is working collaboratively in other ways as well. The Fund today includes private, community, and corporate foundations; higher education institutions; health care systems; corporations; and individuals.

Without broader collaboration like this, suburbs such as Parma Heights or Warrensville Heights risk falling farther behind as their residents struggle to make ends meet. A go-it-alone strategy—with each municipality devising its own plans, battling for a shrinking pot of funding, and creating islands of success—will not promote the sustained growth the region needs. Instead, the work of the Fund and others can help to ensure that struggling communities, including suburban Cleveland, can continue to work their way out of the recession in a way that lifts all boats.

Homepage photo credit: Ohio Office of Redevelopment, via Flickr

Poverty and Disadvantage Continue to Concentrate in the Suburbs

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Barbara Ray

It’s easy to conjure up images of concentrated poverty in the inner city.

As Alex Kotlowitz described it in his 1991 book There Are No Children Here: “There were no banks, only currency exchanges, which charged customers up to $8000 for every welfare check cashed. There were no public libraries, movie theaters, skating rinks, or bowling alleys to entertain the neighborhood’s children. For the infirm, there were two neighborhood clinics . . .  both of which teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and would close by the end of 1989. Yet the death rate of newborn babies exceeded infant mortality rates in a number of third world countries, including Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba and Turkey. And there was no rehabilitation center, though drug use was rampant.”

But in the suburbs?

In fact, yes, concentrated poverty is an increasingly suburban phenomenon—although with a different spin. Rebecca Burns writes in Politico:

“If the old story of poverty in America was crumbling inner cities and drug-addled housing projects, the new story is increasingly one of downscale strip malls and long bus rides in search of ever-scarcer jobs.”

Since 2000, suburban communities have seen the fastest pace of growth in the number of poor residents living in concentrated poverty, according to a new analysis by Elizabeth. Between 2000 and 2008−2012, the number of suburban poor living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods grew by 139 percent, almost three times the pace of such growth in cities. In the suburbs, just shy of 1 million (972,379, or 6.3 percent) poor individuals lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40 percent or more in 2008−2012—the tipping point that researchers and policymakers consider poverty to be “concentrated.”

Ease the tipping point to 20 percent of residents in a neighborhood who are poor and the suburban increase is even more alarming. By 2008−2012, the suburbs were home to nearly as many high-poverty tracts (those with poverty rates between 20 and 40 percent) as cities (4,313 versus 5,353). Research has shown that when communities break the 20 percent threshold, let alone 40 percent, the dominoes start to fall. Although concentrated poverty is still a largely central-city concern, it is clearly no longer only a central-city concern.

It’s not hard to see how it happens. Lower-cost housing, networks of friends, past settlement patterns draw lower-income families to certain communities. In suburban Chicago, for example, affordable housing is relegated to a handful of suburbs as zoning restrictions in more affluent communities bar multifamily homes or subsidized housing.  A tough recession and housing crisis pushed many near-poor families into poverty after a job loss or foreclosure. As area incomes decline, the tax base declines and can no longer support robust services or draw a variety of businesses. Likewise, per pupil spending pales in comparison to wealthier communities, and the slide of disinvestment begins. Better off families move out for greener pastures, leaving behind the most vulnerable.

The suburbs in the Sun Belt experienced some of the steepest increases in concentrated disadvantage. Topping the list were Winston-Salem, NC; Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC; Greenville, NC; and Atlanta. In Winston-Salem, for example, the share of the suburban poor who lived in census tracts with at least 20 percent of residents who were poor increased from 7 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2008−2012.

But in sheer numbers, McAllen, Texas, leads the nation. There, 94 percent of the suburban poor live in high-poverty or distressed neighborhoods. Other western cities follow suit, including El Paso, TX; Fresno, CA; and Bakersfield, CA. [see map] 100 Metro Con Pov Map
In many ways, concentrated poverty in the suburbs looks different from its urban counterpart. It increasingly includes white homeowners, high school graduates, and two-parent families. Education disparities between poor and others in these suburban neighborhoods are narrowing, “and the shares of teenagers dropping out of high school, working-age men not in the labor force, and households receiving public assistance—all traditional measures of ‘underclass’ characteristics—have fallen,” they write.

The recession and the housing crisis are to blame for some of this shift, but the trends were becoming apparent even before the recession. Patterns in health disparities make this clear and show that poverty is broadening its reach. For years, blacks and Hispanics have had higher (and earlier) mortality rates. However, in recent years, as new research shows, lifespans have shrunk for the least educated whites as well. The sharpest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008.

All of this hints that the changes we’re seeing are not tied only to the gyrations of the economy but might signal a more enduring change.

For too many, Rev. Dwight “Ike” Reighard, president of a major nonprofit organization in Cobb County outside Atlanta, told Politico, “People went to suburbia for the American dream, and it became a nightmare.”

The nightmare only gets worse when neighborhoods succumb to concentrating poverty. In the suburbs of Lake Wales, Wahneta, Combee Settlement, Alturas, and seven other communities outside Lakeland-Winter Haven, Florida, for example, all of the poor residents (100 percent) live in census tracts of high poverty. Similarly for the suburbs of Suncoast Estates, Pine Manor, Page Park, and Fort Myers Shores in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area. There are many other examples across the country.

But as President Bill Clinton told a gathering of the Hamilton Project in Washington, those in poverty “need not be patronized. They don’t want entitlements. What they really want is empowerment, and we need to give them policies that provide that.”

In the case of suburban concentrated poverty, those policies and approaches must start now to halt the progression of concentrated disadvantage before it crosses the 40 percent threshold. New policies must also recognize that tackling poverty in the suburbs may require different approaches than central city strategies. Many of these suburban communities are ill equipped and unprepared to deal with the needs of a growing and increasingly concentrated low-income population.

Policies must also increasingly look to a regional approach. And given the limited resources at hand, we need more integrated and cross-cutting approaches. Policymakers and practitioners can learn from regional leaders who are finding innovative ways to make limited resources stretch further to confront the regional scale of poverty. These leaders are crafting approaches that work across urban and suburban boundaries and link decisions regarding housing, transportation, workforce development, and jobs to forge stronger connections between low-income residents and regional economic opportunity, regardless of where they live.

Homepage photo credit: Flickr user akahawkeyefan

Research Brief: The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-12

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While poverty increased and spread in the 2000s, it also became more concentrated in high-poverty and economically distressed neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods were increasingly located in the suburbs. By 2008-2012, the suburbs accounted for 40 percent of residents living in such areas in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. Elizabeth explains why this increased concentration of poverty in suburban communities can pose greater challenges.

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