Suburban Poverty: A Year of Lessons

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Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube

Today marks one year since the release of our book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. Over the course of the last year, we’ve traveled to dozens of communities across the country to talk about the rapid rise of suburban poverty, a trend experienced by almost every major metro area in recent years, and what it means for residents, communities, policymakers, and practitioners grappling with the shifting geography of poverty. Here are our top five reflections from those travels:

1. Numbers are powerful, but only if they are known.

Local leaders and residents often don’t know the extent to which poverty has grown in their communities, or fully understand the complex challenges facing new arrivals and long-time suburban residents who make up the growing poor population. Fortunately, we have seen communities make significant strides by bringing together diverse stakeholders for conversations grounded in data and evidence. In November, Elizabeth participated in a Homeless Education Network summit that highlighted the increase in student homelessness in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. Media coverage of the event led a local YMCA to reach out to the suburban Penn Hills school district to explore ways they could work together to target services to the poor and homeless families in that community. Efforts like Navigating the New Normal in Minnesota are similarly helping to bridge the divide between research, perceptions, and on-the-ground realities.

2. Forget the cookie cutter.

The vocabulary we use to tell a national story—for instance, the word, “suburb”—often falls short of capturing the nuance of local identity and experience. In Houston or Phoenix, the landscape looks suburban well before you pass the city limits, and nearby communities may feel more like rural areas than suburbs. In contrast, a region like Boston may need a more nuanced framework to understand and guide policy decisions across older, densely populated small cities and towns that make up the metro area. This diversity within and across places carries a wider lesson for national practitioners, who succeed most when they partner with local and regional actors who understand the histories, identities, and varying levels of capacity that exist on the ground.

3. Small amounts of capital help build critical capacity.

In their new brief, Robin Snyderman and Beth Dever point to the importance of early investments from local philanthropy that allowed Chicago’s suburban collaboratives to boost their capacity by hiring dedicated coordinators. That staff capacity was critical to attracting and implementing federal funds. Whether it’s multi-jurisdictional collaboration, collective impact models around education (like the Road Map Project in Seattle) or community development (like Great Neighborhoods in Greater Boston), or expanding high-performing nonprofits into suburbs (like Mary’s Center in the National Capital region), local philanthropy is consistently critical for building capacity to confront the challenges of poverty in suburbs. As Robin and Beth point out, however, traditional government funding streams will be needed to sustain these models in the long run.

4. Growing jobs and fighting poverty are not separate initiatives.

While there is still a lot of work to be done to update perceptions, conversations shouldn’t just focus on the problem. Framing the discussion in terms of economic opportunity and regional competitiveness can help engage more partners—particularly the private sector—in efforts to improve outcomes for low-income people and places. In our recent visit to South King County, Washington, we learned about several promising initiatives underway to help communities struggling with rising poverty. Those conversations also revealed an appetite to leverage the sub-region’s assets to grow better jobs, and more strategically coordinate efforts to help prepare local populations for those opportunities.

5. Recovery did not hit the reset button.

The severity of the Great Recession caused policymakers and practitioners in many parts of the country to think differently about how to address shared challenges with limited resources. A few years into the recovery, the crisis has abated, but need remains high and resources haven’t rebounded. Some places are still experiencing rapid increases in their low-income population—like suburban Williamson County, Texas where more than 200 civic and nonprofit leaders recently gathered for a summit on the swift demographic and economic changes underway there. But for many other communities across the country, they are trying to adjust to a “new normal” and the reality that poverty in suburbia is here to stay. Without the urgency of a crisis, however, it can be harder to spur partners across sectors and jurisdictions to do things differently. To help communities catalyze and sustain action that improves outcomes for low-income residents over the long term, it is important as ever to align public and private funding to support more regional, cross-cutting anti-poverty strategies.

Updating Anti-Poverty Policy for the Suburban Age

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Alan Berube

This year, 2014, is rife with 50-year retrospectives of the War on Poverty. More than just a round-number anniversary, the topic is attracting a lot of attention thanks to growing rates of poverty and inequality in America, as well as a nostalgia for a time when the federal government did “big things,” like establishing Medicare and the Food Stamp program. In today’s gridlocked Washington (and notwithstanding the Affordable Care Act), that seems like ancient history.

Courtesy of Maureen SillAs we’ve noted previously, many of the retrospectives are simply an occasion for arguing about whether we “won” or “lost” the war. For all the economic struggles that millions of American families continue to face today, evidence clearly demonstrates that many of the anti-poverty policies and programs we’ve adopted over the past five decades have significantly materially improved the lives of lower-income people.

Yet the evidence seems more mixed when it comes to poor places. More than one in five big-city residents is poor. And of those poor residents, nearly one in four lives in a neighborhood of “extreme poverty,” where the poverty rate exceeds 40 percent. When community poverty rises to that level, it multiplies the negative consequences of individual poverty, and can mute the effectiveness of programs intended to help the poor.

This was the stark backdrop against which a collection of researchers (including me) and practitioners came together at the University of Southern California last month, to discuss “Innovating to End Urban Poverty.”

Yet as we know by now, poor people are not confined to urban areas. Neither are high levels of community poverty exclusively urban. The latest Census Bureau data indicate that fully one-quarter of poor individuals who live in extremely poor neighborhoods in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas are in suburbs. And suburbs account for four in ten poor individuals in those regions who live in areas of high poverty—a neighborhood poverty rate exceeding 20 percent. (We’ll be releasing a more detailed analysis of the latest data in the coming weeks.)

True to the name of the conference, however, the presenting researchers and practitioners advanced ideas and spoke about innovations that, for the most part, were rooted in poor city neighborhoods. To be sure, they advanced many cutting-edge practices, including helping parents navigate school choice options, re-engaging the previously incarcerated, expanding community-based health care, and using community organizing to give voice to politically under-represented groups. Yet these solutions are largely built on the infrastructure, expertise, and lessons borne of decades of work in low-income urban neighborhoods. School choice, for instance, isn’t really an option in most struggling suburbs. Political organizing is nascent at best.

Courtesy of FutureAtlas.comOnly one panel at the conference focused on “place” as a context for addressing poverty. A short paper I wrote for that panel argues that contemporary anti-poverty strategies must recognize the different needs of poor families in both cities and suburbs. The suburbs, for example, often lack the density to deliver services in a distinct area. Poor families often spread over greater distances in the suburbs, and they face different barriers (transportation, for example) than city dwellers do.

Moreover, as poverty spreads to the suburbs, it becomes less a neighborhood problem and more of a regional or sub-regional problem—affecting the south sides and suburbs of Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle, or the east sides and suburbs of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.

Investing our existing resources in organizations and strategies that are less tied to one particular place, and more collaborative in their execution, represents one important way forward. In Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, Elizabeth and I propose a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge. The Challenge would reward regional and sub-regional strategies via competitive funding, create new forms of partnerships, and, above all, create more comprehensive networks to achieve scale and spread the most highly effective programs.

Angela Blanchard, CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Inc., represented this approach on the panel I participated in. That organization’s work throughout the Greater Houston area also captures well what Marge Turner, another panelist, termed in her paper “place-conscious” anti-poverty strategies—those that grapple with the important context that place creates in addressing the needs of low-income families, but are not circumscribed by the boundaries of those locales.

There’s no question that in an era of flat resources and growing needs, we simply must innovate to address the enduring challenge of urban poverty. But we should strive to innovate in ways that ensure 50 years from now, we won’t need to hold a conference on innovating to end suburban poverty, too.

Photos courtesy of Maureen Sill and, respectively.


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.