The poor population in suburbs grew by 65% between 2000 and 2014. That’s more than twice the pace of growth that we saw in big cities... The magnitude and the rapid pace of this trend really begged a lot of questions.
— Elizabeth Kneebone

In this belated interview from Suburban Poverty week, we had the chance to speak with Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and co-author of the book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. Her work primarily focuses on urban and suburban poverty, metropolitan demographics, and tax policies that support low-income workers and communities.

This conversation between Rachel Quednau and Elizabeth Kneebone focuses on the causes of, impacts on and responses to suburban poverty in America. We dive into transportation struggles, challenges for the elderly, and the struggle to truly address this growing and hidden problem.

Listen to the podcast

Elizabeth Kneebone. Photo from Brookings.

Elizabeth Kneebone. Photo from Brookings.

+ Podcast Transcript

Strong Towns (ST): Hello, everyone. Welcome to the “Strong Towns” podcast. This August, we hosted a week of content on our website focused on “Suburban Poverty,” exploring the causes and effects of the suburbanization of poverty in America.

Today we have with us special guest, Elizabeth Kneebone, to speak on the subject. She is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and co‑author of the book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.”

Her work primarily focuses on urban and suburban poverty, metropolitan demographics, and tax policies that support low income workers and communities. Elizabeth, welcome to the Strong Towns podcast.

Elizabeth Kneebone: Thank you for having me.

ST: Let's start by going back a few decades. I wanted to ask when you think that the concept of suburban poverty, first, was even acknowledged. When was the first research started, to be done on this subject?

Kneebone: The reality is, even though it runs counter to our popular perception, poverty has always existed in the suburbs. From their initiation, from their first birth and development in this country, there have always been poor people that were a part of the suburbs.

It’s only been more recently, especially since the 2000s, but even in the proceeding decades, that we saw the pace of growth of the poor population begin to pick up in the suburbs.

It was in the 2000s that we really passed this tipping point. For the first time, there were more poor residents living in suburbs than in big cities. I feel there was a recognition in terms of the research and the literature around poverty in the suburbs.

In the ‘90s and early 2000s, there was a lot of great work done by a number of researchers like Myron Orfield, Rob Puentes. Lucy and Phillips wrote a great book about poverty in the suburbs, about distressed suburbs. [Confronting Suburban Decline, by William Lucy and David Phillips.]

In particular, that work tended to focus on older inner‑ring suburbs. Particularly in the Rust Belt, in the Midwest and Northeast, older industrial areas, where you had a number of these inner‑ring suburbs that were very urbanized.

They were affected by industrial transformations, economic transformations happening in a lot of these regions as manufacturing declined, the steel industry declined. A lot of these places were dense, very urbanized, very close to the central city.

[Suburbia] is exhibiting a lot of similar challenges that urban areas have long dealt with. What we saw then later in the 2000s, and a lot of all the work that I have done has focused on is, those challenges are persistent, they'll still exist in those inner ring suburbs that have the struggled for longer with these challenges.

We really saw particularly in the last decade, a rapid growth of poverty even beyond those inner ring more urban core type suburban communities. What we saw is almost every major metro area experienced a growth in their suburban per population over the 2000s.

That growth really touched those older inner-ring places, middle tier communities and even exurban communities on the suburban fringe. More communities that we tend to think of as typically are stereotypically suburban in that, “Leave It To Beaver” middle class vision. I think that is often evoked when people talk about the suburbs.

Really what we just saw is that poverty has become more of a regional phenomenon. It’s touching a lot more people in places than before, and a number of communities that people long thought were immune to these trends are now also struggling with the challenges of poverty.

ST: What got you interested in studying this topic?

Kneebone: I didn't set out [laughs] to study poverty in the suburbs. It really was the numbers, especially the rapid change that we saw in recent years that caught my attention and that of my colleague Alan Berube, that really led us into delving into this area of research more deeply and following it until we, in fact, ended up writing a book about the scope of work that we had undertaken.

Part of it is, I think that with this rapid growth that we saw, particularly since 2000, the poor population in suburbs grew by 65 percent between 2000 and 2014. That's more than twice the pace of growth that we saw in big cities in urban areas and other anchors to these regions.
Now, there are more than three million more poor in suburbs than in cities.

Even as of 2000, that wasn't the case. There were still a majority of poor living in cities.

The magnitude and the rapid pace of this trend really begged a lot of questions, trying to understand what was driving these trends, what were the implications of this shift, and to try and unpack the experiences of different types of communities, because it is something I feel like it is less understood, or less studied, and quite the detail that we’ve seen in urban areas and urban poverty which has long been a challenge.

ST: In your book you discussed three main topics ‑‑ how poverty became suburbanized, what the impacts of the suburban poverty are and then what some steps forward might be. Let's talk about the first one. What do you see as the main causes of suburban poverty based on your research?

Kneebone: There are number of different dynamics that worked together to help drive up the numbers that we've seen and the growth and poverty in suburbs that we've seen. Particularly in the last 15 years or so.

Some of this is about more poor residents moving to suburban communities, but I think an even larger piece of the story is about the downward trajectory or downward mobility of suburban residents. Who may have always lived in the suburbs but became poor over time.

On the first piece, that movement [of poverty] to the suburbs, I often think that sometimes that gets even more attention because maybe it’s more visible as communities are changing, as new populations may be moving into communities, it’s sometimes more visible then that longer run decline or some of the economic impacts we’ve seen more recently.

But a lot of that movement is driven by things like where is affordable housing located within regions. Some of this speaks in some markets where there's been a lot of redevelopment in cities. Housing prices have risen, there are housing-price pressures causing people to work further out in the region for more affordable communities.

But we know that's only a small piece of this larger puzzle. Some of this is also about suburban housing that has aged into affordability over time as it has gotten older. People with means moved out to newer communities and moved back into the city. You have these communities that maybe were once un‑affordable becoming more affordable to lower income families.

Also the use of subsidies, especially we've seen a shift towards more portable housing vouchers as the way of delivering subsidies and those are meant to offer people choice, the ability to move to different communities. We’ve seen a shift over the 2000s to what now about half of voucher holders in major metro live in the suburbs.

Of course, in terms of housing you have the impact of the housing crisis. The subprime boom in the mid 2000s—about three quarters of loans in our major metro areas that were subprime were made and in suburban communities.

After the collapse of the housing market, about three quarters of foreclosures took place in suburban communities. So that also affected and helped shape these housing markets and these trends. In addition to housing you had jobs suburbanized over time.

Some of the most of the suburbanized sectors and industries are in service industries, retail, construction, manufacturing. Industries that may have lower paying jobs but also ones that were hit hard by the great recession and that economic downturn that took place in the late 2000s.

In addition a lot more of the low wage work force – and my colleagues did an analysis – about two thirds of lower wage workers in our major metro areas live in suburbs. Part of, not just what types of jobs are available in [the] market, helped influence these trends, but where those jobs are located, and where the workforce for those jobs live matters as well for how poverty distributes within the regions.

ST: One of the topics that interested me a lot because I come from a social service background was the fact that you guys talked in your book about how suburbs have been harder to reach with social services, and that there is not the existing networks of non‑profits, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, things like that to help people. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kneebone: Absolutely. Even before talking about the impacts or the implications of these trends, I think one other piece I would just mention, and what's helped drive these trends over time, I think is often first top of mind is the Great Recession itself. The deepest downturn since the Great Depression, and that definitely helped exacerbate these trends.

We saw the numbers really spike following the onset of the Great Recession and spikes in unemployment. In many ways, because of the housing‑led nature of the downturn, suburbs bore the brunt of that downturn more so than in past recessions. Particularly in the first year or so of the recession, we really saw unemployment in suburbs even outpace the growth that we saw in cities. They really saw a very similar impact, cities and suburbs, over the course of the recession.

It’s a mistake to think that is what really drove this tip towards the suburbs. As in, if we put all the blame on the recession, then we [might] think, once we get into recovery this will tip back. Suburbs will rebound faster, or this was just a momentary blip. That’s just really not the case, because we’ve seen structural shifts in the economy as well.

The typical household income was falling, even before the onset of the Great Recession. We’ve seen a real shift towards lower paying jobs in the service sector parts of the economy.

If we look at some of the occupations that are most likely to grow, or grow most quickly in the next 10 years, you see things like home health aide or childcare providers. Jobs that may only pay $20,000 a year for someone who’s working full‑time. If you’re raising a family, that’s not enough to get you above the poverty line. A lot more of those jobs, as I mentioned before, are in the suburbs.

That’s all to say, even as we get into recovery and start to see the recovery really trickle through and take hold in the poverty numbers overall --- which has been very slow to happen in this recovery. The idea is, suburbs haven’t bounded back more quickly.

In fact, [suburbs] are likely to continue to see the challenges of poverty persist, alongside the urban challenges that we continue to address in these regions. That really brings us to your question about the safety nets. What are the challenges that that new geography of poverty raises?

One of the immediate challenges that we saw, particularly in the wake of the recession and this rapid growth of poverty, is that the safety net tends to be less developed in suburban communities. There just isn’t the same history of building up that type of resource in many of these suburban communities.

The same level of investments we’ve seen in cities over time, often haven’t been made in these suburban communities. You often see fewer providers located in the suburbs, to begin with. They may be smaller or stretched over a larger area, serving a much more diffused population or multiple jurisdictions with what services they’re able to offer.

The continuum of services in the suburbs often tends to be patchier than what’s available in cities. If you've lost your job in the downturn, or need assistance with retraining or connecting to a different employment opportunity, many suburbs may not have that workforce type of job training provider there.

We saw in many cases food banks or food pantries were the canary in the coal mine, and many of these communities [are] seeing some real rapid increases in demand for services.

We heard more than one anecdote from providers we talked to over the
years, of people who used to donate to these services, now having to come and seek help. [We heard] really, the strain that many of these providers were facing. Their budgets may have been hit by tighter local budgets, by cutbacks in government services.

Philanthropy often is less present in these suburban communities. Some research that our colleagues have done on where philanthropic dollars go, they still tend to disproportionately go to urban areas, the central city, as opposed to suburbs. Even in regions where there are now more poor people in the suburbs, because some of that comes back again.

It’s a chicken and the egg challenge about capacity. If you don't have providers who can be competitive for philanthropic or government grants, it’s hard to get more resources flowing to these communities. We also see relatively few dollars being dedicated to building capacity in these places. That makes it really hard to figure how to break that cycle and grow the capacity that’s necessary, given the scale of need many of these places are facing.

ST: Yeah. That point about the lack of philanthropic dollars going to the suburbs was really interesting to me. Obviously part of that is historically, we think of urban areas as being more poor and having more poverty. Do you think that part of it might also be that poverty is less visible in the suburbs? Like, people are still living in a single-family home.

They still probably have a car, even if they are fairly low income. Versus in an urban area, you see a homeless person sleeping on a park bench and things like that.

Kneebone: Yeah. I do think that. This is something we’ve heard from providers too. Part of the challenge with attracting more resources to these communities is exactly that. Both popular perception of where poverty is and where it exists within regions, and the sense that just the built environment, or the way these communities have developed over time, may make poverty more hidden.

You may have a business or charitable donations that are being [donated by] someone who lives in your suburb, who are giving their donations to the central city or to another part of the region. Because they don’t realize the extent to which need has grown in their own community. In a lot of instances, providers are just trying to deal with this first‑order education challenge.

To make sure that funders, both philanthropic, corporate and individuals, really understand the geography of need, and the way that may have shifted, in some cases quite rapidly, in recent years. They can start to attract more resources to these really under‑resourced places.

ST: You mentioned the built environment, and that's something we’ve talked a lot about at Strong Towns. One of the topics that seemed very prevalent in conversations about suburban poverty was the transportation issue. The fact that suburbs don’t have a lot of transit options or bike options or safe walking options. How does that affect the suburban poor?

Kneebone: It’s a top priority. It’s a top challenge in many of these communities. It’s one of the first things that we hear about in talking to communities who are grappling with these issues. Some of the research we’ve done has shown, when you look at things like transit, public transit tends to be less available in suburban communities in the first place.

If you look at headways, or how often there’s a bus coming to that bus stop, there are often more limited schedules. The connectivity can be much lower than what exists in urban cores, where transit may have been more invested in. The denser [urban] development patterns more readily serve those types of transit connections.

It can be harder to get to jobs via transit, let alone all these other services that we know are less present in the suburbs and maybe more spread out to begin with. It can really exacerbate a number of challenges in trying to connect to both jobs, and the types of wraparound supports that can help low-income families.

Whether downturns in the economy, or you’re trying to get a more stable footing, as they're looking to work their way out of poverty. You mention safe walking. This is something that people, I think, often don’t think about. The transit or infrastructure conversation – we’ve spoken with suburban school districts that talk about the difficulty of serving unincorporated parts of the county where there are no sidewalks in trying to be able to make sure that their students have a safe way to walk to school, if they don't have other transportation options.

Especially when you're looking at unincorporated parts of the county, who is the voice? Who advocates for the low income families? Who takes on these issues of infrastructure to create a safer built environment that helps people connect to their day‑to‑day needs?
It really does raise this question. Being poor, no matter where you live, is a challenge, but there may be unique challenges, unique hurdles that have to be overcome when you think about poverty in a suburban context.

ST: Continuing the transit topic, you shared a statistic that I found surprising in the book, which is, I'm just going to quote right from the book that, "77 percent of working age residents in low income suburban neighborhoods, have at least one transit stop serving their neighborhood within three‑quarters of a mile."

You bring out the fact that that doesn't mean that the bus is going to a place that most residents need to go, it doesn't mean that it’s going to be reliable in showing up at frequent intervals.

I’ve certainly – when I’ve been driving through a suburb and seeing a bus stop, it’s always surprising, because I have a perception that there's no public transit. But you have this fact that, sure there might be a bus, but it's not necessarily going to be super helpful for everyone there. I thought that was an important point, for sure.

Kneebone: That’s right. If you think about the schedule, it may be not only that the headways are longer you're waiting an hour between when the bus comes, or may be the bus only comes during rush hour in the morning a couple of times, and rush hour in the evening a couple of times.

Your window of actually being able to access that resource is limited. But then layer that on top of the fact that, like I mentioned before, if two‑thirds of the lower‑wage workforce are living in suburban communities, these are workers who may not work typical nine to five schedules and likely don’t. They may need to get to work at night, or on weekends, or those off‑peak hours, where there may not be no service at all.

That coverage number tells you something and I think it's an important context for this discussion, but it really is not enough to just have the bus stop in your neighborhood. It really does matter the way we connect people.

In fact, what we found in that research as well is, if you look at that 77 percent, what share of jobs, if you have a bus stop, if you have a train stop, what share of jobs in the region can you reach in 90 minutes? The shares were much lower. It was about one in four jobs for the suburbs, compared to 40 percent of jobs if you live in the urban core.

What part of that number really reflects is that, if you build a system where many older markets are, for instance, built this way, we have a hub and spoke transit network, that’s really designed with the idea that veteran communities in the suburbs want to get into this the urban core to work downtown, so you have this city to suburb connection.

We know, more and more, as jobs have de‑centralized, as populations have become more suburbanized, that their job centers in the suburbs would require you to make a suburb to suburb commute, because again, a lot of the affordable housing may not be in the part of the region that has the biggest job corridors, or job centers.

Those types of connections can become almost impossible in many markets, which again, just makes transit not an option at all, because of the way this system is networked.

ST: When we had our week focus on suburban poverty on our website, a couple of people wrote articles for us about the transit issue and specifically talking about the fact that even when you do have busing, it’s still a challenge and not as feasible as it is in urban areas, because of the way that the suburbs are designed.

Even if you put your best foot forward and try to implement a good busing system, people are still spread out that it’s very hard to serve everyone in an adequate way.

As you mentioned also, yeah, those historic models of all the buses converge in the downtown and then everyone transfers to go somewhere else, don't really work in the same way in the suburbs, because they’re not always designed around that central hub. That definitely, it seems like a big challenge.

Kneebone: That's right. I think that [if] the public transit system that does exist in suburbs, it can be transformative for people living in those communities. It really is a lifeline.

In the book, we talk about a suburb in Houston, Pasadena, where their organizations, their neighborhood centers was working with the community, the transportation piece really clearly rose to the top of the list. It’s like this is the key challenge we're cut off from transit options.
Just being able to put a bus line into a nearby transit hub made a big difference for that community. It really helped give them connectivity that they didn't have before.

Likewise, we refer to Penn Hills in the book, which is a suburb outside of Pittsburgh, where they really felt the impact of cuts to bus line services, because again, that was a lifeline connectivity to the rest of the region.

At the same time, not all suburbs are going to be able to be well served by transit. It may not be the efficient option. It’s also thinking creatively about what is the total transport strategy look like that can make the most of transit where it can be efficiently used to help connect people to different nodes and parts of the region.

Then also, what might other transportation options be within these regions to make sure that we’re helping people overcome some of that what we call, a special mismatch, between where they may be able to afford to live, and where economic opportunity lies in the region.

ST: We've talked about the transportation challenges, we've talked about the social service challenges of reaching the suburban poor, what are the other main impacts and challenges that come to mind for suburban poor that you guys discovered through your research?

Kneebone: When you think about meeting the needs of the growing poor population, the two that we discussed are often the first thing that communities are thinking about, or trying to grapple with. The transportation connectivity, and then figuring out how to make sure people are getting access to really needed services.

Those are the immediate near term how do we meet the needs.

The challenge looking beyond that is, as we think about long term, how to make sure people get to a point where they don’t need to stay tuned at services, is a longer term broader strategy about connecting people to economic opportunity.

Through education and training options, but also understanding how land‑use decisions, governance decisions, investments in housing, transportation and economic development also will work together to affect access to opportunity through the built environment.

A lot of what we talk about is this need for more cross‑cutting strategies that really look to play that longer-term game, to connect people to economic opportunities, so they have the opportunity to work their way out of poverty.

It also means not just cross‑cutting from a policy perspective, from thinking about not just transportation as a silo, or housing as a silo, but how those policy areas interact and intersect. It's also thinking across jurisdictions and jurisdictional boundaries.

One of the questions, I think, or challenges, that quickly comes up when we think about the lagging resources in the suburban context, the lagging capacity that’s needed in these communities is, are we playing a zero‑sum game? Is the suggestion then that you take resources away from the city and give it to the suburbs? That would just be a mistake.

That would be a very short‑sighted interpretation of what these trends mean. If anything, I think it really underscores the regional nature of these challenges and also aligns with the reality of the regional labor market. These labor markets don't stop at the city boundary or the suburbs.

These are metropolitan areas because they’re regional labor markets with inner‑connectivity across these jurisdictions. These always says we think about what is the right way to distribute resources, to address these challenges, to think about how to overcome some of the capacity gaps in some of these communities.

That it calls for a more regional approach as well, so that we rather than saying, either or playing a zero‑sum game of figuring out how to back the most effective and efficient strategies at a better scale for addressing these issues.

ST: Did your research mostly focus on the impacts of suburban poverty for the individuals, or did you guys study all the impacts for as you were just talking about regional governments, or suburban governments? How does poverty affect the area as a whole?

Kneebone: I feel like this debate comes up, and we bring this up in the book, that when we start discussing, how do you address this? That there’s often a false choice or a debate that comes up between people‑based strategies versus place‑based strategies. That’s too simplistic, and again [it is] not really an either-or thing.
We talk in the book about how do you -- even as we think about what we traditionally would term people‑based programs – it’s understanding how those types of investment intersect with place, and then how can we be more effective with our traditional place‑based investments as well. It calls for a more comprehensive approach.

By [the] nature of that, it really calls us to think about some of the governance challenges that come with trying to address these challenges in the suburbs, the fact that many suburban landscapes, particularly in older industrial areas and older regions are really fragmented. You might be talking about hundreds of jurisdictions that are trying to grapple with the challenge that is much bigger than any one border or any one jurisdiction.

Again, this brings me back to why we're really calling for this more regional framework, it gets above that very parochial, very fragmented map, because these challenges really do cut across, so many types of places.

The idea [is] that, economically, these are really regions that sink or swim together. There’s been a lot of great research and discussion about why you don't want a city to be pitted against the suburbs. The central city is – having a healthy core – is really important to having a healthy metro area.

With this research then, [that] pushes that conversation to expand to, say, you also don’t want your suburbs to atrophy or to become distressed as well, [because] that becomes a drag on the broader regional economy, the competitiveness and health of the metropolitan region.

It really is now, again, getting past these too simplistic either-or discussions to think more collectively about how you create health in competitive regions.

ST: What are some of the steps forward that you guys have thought about through your research? What are some ways that we can start alleviating suburban poverty?

Kneebone: Writing the book was a great opportunity to spend a lot of time in different regions across the country where these trends may have played out somewhat differently, but we see common themes emerging from so many different markets that are still grappling with these issues.

The most innovative thinking and forward looking models we’ve seen developed on the ground by local actors, by regional leaders, while they came from different places, the leader wasn’t necessarily the same in each market. The focus of the intervention wasn't necessarily the same in each market.

In some cases you had a strong non‑profit taking the lead, in some cases it was a consortium of municipal governments, or a strong philanthropic funder, or a very strong collection of school districts. You see the leadership coming from different directions, and it may be focusing on things like housing, or education as a leading issue area, or a community development.

What we really focus on in the book is informative, in that there seems to be three common characteristics of these models that I think helps pave the way for what is a more modernized approach to dealing with poverty in place look like given the scale of the challenges that we’re talking about today. I guess, that suggests, that we need a new model. I think that we do. We make the case in the book that we do.

The approaches that we’ve built up over decades – this is the one on poverty really, of addressing poverty in place – have left us with a pre‑fragmented array of programs that aren’t always easy to navigate, especially if you’re a smaller community, you come into these challenges, newly or for the first time, or dealing with that at a scale you haven't dealt with before.

When you have that lack of capacity, it’s really hard to navigate this very fragmented array of programs. The other challenge is that a lot of these programs were built with distressed inner‑city neighborhoods in mind and don't map very easily onto the suburbs in many cases.

It’s a fairly inflexible system that doesn't really respond or recognize the scope and scale of today’s need, and the diversity of places that are really grappling with these issues.

This brings me back to, what are the three key elements that we’ve seen in some more innovative on the ground models that could really inform state and federal policy around place‑based anti-poverty programs?

What we saw, number one is that these models are figuring out a way to get to a better scale, whether in the scope of services or issues that
they’re addressing or geographically. They're getting to a better scale.

The second element is they’re figuring out ways to be more collaborative and integrated, getting us back to that crosscutting, whether it’s across juridical boundaries or across policy silos. That’s very related to scale as well. They’re figuring out how to collaborate and integrate.

The third piece that we really noticed was this figuring out ways to fund strategically. Given the strain on budgets at every level of government and even philanthropically, that one pot of money or one funding stream isn’t going to be enough to tackle a lot of the scope and depth of these challenges. Figuring out a way to diversify funding streams, bring in public and private support and braid it together.

Often to use that money effectively, it’s figuring out how to work with data effectively. How do you use data to help target where interventions are needed and what types of services are needed. Also, to measure what’s working, so that we can keep trying to use the limited funds that we have more effectively and efficiently.

We’ve seen these principles applied in a number of different ways and a number of different markets, but I think those three key features really suggest a different way of moving forward. That you can allow for more flexible approaches that target the shifting needs within each market with those principles at the core.

The fact that you are trying to measure what’s working, and chart what’s working, and bank on successful, strong providers and models. Then give them a lot of flexibility in the way that they pursue the strategies needed across a real diverse array of places.

ST: You noted that they're several broad trends that we can see in many different types of suburbs that are experiencing poverty all over the country. Have you seen through your research that suburban poverty is disproportionally affecting one demographic or a set of demographics more than others or is it a pretty varied group of people who are experiencing this?

Kneebone: It’s such a diverse place. Part of that reflects the fact that suburbs are really a diverse array of communities. Not all suburbs look the same or developed in the same way. What we’ve seen is when we [seek to] “tell the story of suburban poverty,” you can tell any number of different stories.

Whereas I think, a lot of the times, the popular narrative or the media narrative often tends to focus on, especially post-recession, the new poor. It paints this picture of a middle-class family who fell on hard economic times and are now having to seek safety net services for the first time, or really come to terms with being poor for the first time. That story exists. That absolutely exists.

It raises a particular set of challenges. How do you make sure those families are connecting to the safety net services they’ve never used before or they may not be aware of that they can benefit from? That is a real narrative that's happening in a number of places.

There’s also generational poverty in the suburbs.

There are communities where you have pockets of concentrated poverty. We’ve seen the negative effects of that often in an urban context, but increasingly those types of very poor communities, that limit access to opportunity, those are growing very quickly in the suburbs. Some have been there for quite some time. That's a very different experience than that first narrative that we often hear about more often.

There are also, increasingly, new immigrants are bypassing cities altogether and moving to the suburbs, the ones that are struggling with economic hardship. That again calls for a different set of policy prescriptions or, at least, a more tailored set of policy interventions that take into account cultural competency and integration goals as well.

There are so many different experiences of poverty in the suburbs that I feel are worth bringing to light. They really do have, at the end of the day, explicit policy responses that may be different or need to be tailored in different ways to meet the same end of helping these residents and families connect to the types of economic opportunity that can get them out of poverty over time.

ST: That reminds me. I did want to ask you about, you mentioned generational poverty. Have you seen or noted the experiences of the elderly who are living in suburban areas? Are there particularly any challenges for them?

Kneebone: Yes. There are now, as I mentioned before, more poor residents living in suburbs and in cities. That's true across age groups. That’s true for children, for working age adults and for elderly. In fact, the elderly skew even a little bit more ‑‑ the elderly poor [are skewed] towards suburbs [more] than those other age groups.

There are again, a specific set of challenges that come along with that. As well as, someone’s aging in the suburbs, potentially in a house they’ve lived in for a long time. Many of these communities weren’t built with the same infrastructure, supports, or services that are often more readily available in cities.

As a person is aging, and maybe loses the ability to drive, it can be very isolating in a suburban context. They may not have been able to afford a car in the first place. Maybe they get to the point where they can’t drive themselves around anymore, if there aren’t transportation services, if there aren’t safety net providers or other community services that can help the elderly connect with the food supports that they need or medical services that they need.

There’s infrastructure around aging that may not exist in a suburban context. We see a lot of communities around the country really grappling with that, especially as the boomers age and we see a larger number of the elderly in suburbs of all income levels. It’s raising infrastructure questions and service questions.

Within that demographic, the poor are even more constrained. I feel like that's a challenge many communities are already facing and it's only going to continue to grow as the population continues to age.

ST: At Strong Towns, we focus a lot on municipal finance and debt and this concept that we call The Growth Ponzi Scheme, which is the way that many towns and cities and suburbs have implemented large public infrastructure projects that they plan to pay for with debt. They might not be thoroughly calculating the maintenance costs that are going to come due 20 or 30 years later when that infrastructure starts to deteriorate.

Suburban roads and sub‑developments are a great example of this. They’re built in anticipation of huge growth and population increases. They’re these huge, wide roads. These sub‑developments that are built about 50 houses at a time that might not have a plan for who’s going to move into them.

A couple of decades down the road, everything starts to deteriorate and then the suburb is looking more shabby and there’s not enough money in the property taxes to pay for that maintenance. Is that something that you guys notice as having any intersections with suburban poverty? Is that related?

Kneebone: I would say, to the extent that, when that life cycle happens, that changes the home values. That changes what’s affordable. I think that in a way, a lot of these issues intersect in so many ways that if you build this up without the ability to maintain it, and then as things begin to deteriorate, people with means move away. Housing prices decline. It opens up opportunities for low‑income families to move in, but there's still not a plan in place to keep up the infrastructure.

That’s where I feel like you run the risk of building a new pocket of poverty – the disinvestment that we’ve seen transform a lot of urban cores decades ago. A lot of suburbs are struggling with this and, in a way, it creates challenges we’ve seen before but in a new context that may bring even more barriers.

If you now have this pocket of poverty that is becoming dis‑invested, it's becoming more distressed over time, but now that pocket of poverty isn’t in the urban core where it may be close to transit or may be close to services. Instead it’s on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.
In some ways it’s even more isolating for the residents who live there to be able to connect to where the jobs are, where the services are that they need. It raises real questions about how do you finance the basic services of this community.

That intersects with something we've talked about before ‑‑ the jurisdictional map of these places, the governance challenges that can come from a fragmented development pattern where now, if this is a municipality of 20,000 people that begins to lose population and decline, what’s the viable model moving forward then? How they meet the growing needs of their community, let alone their basic services that they need to pay for in terms of safety and schools etc.?

We see, in those sorts of development patterns, the intersection of a financing model that maybe is not sustainable with the jurisdictional fragmentation that can complicate the capacity needed to deal with challenges that then intersect with a changing demographic or a growing low‑income problem that has particular needs.

Together that creates a lot of challenges that we’re seeing in suburban communities across the country. Not all suburbs are in that category. [But there] is one particular tier of distressed suburbs where, if we don’t think more regionally about how to change that trajectory, really run the risk of becoming some of these very isolated, distressed pockets that may, in fact, just contribute to this generational cycle of poverty and distress.

ST: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and for doing this pioneering research in the first place. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

Kneebone: We've a number of projects all continuing to understand how, in some way, the built environment, how the sub‑metropolitan map intersects with poverty and opportunity and access to opportunities. We'll continue to study poverty trends.
As new data become available to understand how this trend is shifting over time, how concentrated poverty's changing over time across different types of communities.

We're also looking at how investments and different types of infrastructure affect access to opportunity. Soon we'll be putting out a report, for instance, looking at broadband at the neighborhood level and how access to broadband may vary across different kinds of neighborhoods and for different parts of the population, for racial and ethnic minorities, for the low-income population, for different age groups and in different parts of the region. Thinking about how that affects access to opportunity.

We’re doing more work on regional affordable housing strategies as well, as we think about balancing housing options, investments and revitalizing areas, opening up opportunities. In lower poverty, high-opportunity communities, what are the types of regional cross-jurisdictional tools that are being developed and have proven successful in helping to create a more balanced distribution of affordable housing?

ST: That sounds fascinating. I will continue to follow your research. Elizabeth Kneebone, thank you so much. Her book is Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. I highly recommend it. It is a fairly quick and very readable information piece. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

Kneebone: Thank you for having me.

ST: Take care.

(Top photo: Elizabeth with her co-author, Alan Berube, from ConfrontingSuburbanPoverty.com)