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]
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