Suburban Poverty: What the Research Says

This week, we’re talking all about suburban poverty, a topic that has only really been discussed in the last decade, and even then, only sparingly. I want to begin the week with a look at the data behind suburban poverty: its causes, impacts and current trends.

(Photo by  Brough Turner)

(Photo by Brough Turner)

Where does suburban poverty come from?

Elizabeth Kneebone (who you’ll hear from in a couple weeks on the Strong Towns podcast) and Alan Berube are researchers at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings who recently published a book entitled, Confronting Suburban Poverty. It’s the most succinct and definitive text on present-day suburban poverty. Describing the trajectory of so many suburbs, they write about one of the main causes of suburban poverty:

[T]he tax code provided an open-ended subsidy for homeowners but allowed no parallel housing benefit for renters. For homeowners, the most favorable home loans went to new construction, while loans for improvements or rehabilitation were smaller and given for shorter durations. All of these factors favored suburban development over central cities. (Confronting Suburban Poverty, 6) 

Federal home ownership subsidies and loans are a topic we’ve written about before at Strong Towns. It’s no wonder that, with so much financing going toward new home construction in the suburbs, core urban neighborhoods declined. But it then follows that when you’re investing so much in new construction and so little in renovation and rehabilitation, those once-new homes in the suburbs will eventually decline, with little assistance to keep them afloat. Furthermore, because so many of these homes were produced by developers in bulk—in groups of 10, 20, or even 50 or 100—they’re all deteriorating at the same time. This is one phase of what we call the Growth Ponzi Scheme.

Of note is research by William Lucy and David Phillips, authors of Confronting Suburban Decline: Strategic Planning for Metropolitan Renewal, which found: 

suburban decline to be most prevalent in post-World War II car-dependent suburbs with deteriorating modest single-family houses. These places also tended to have public and private institutions that lacked a sufficient commitment to reinvestment in private homes and public infrastructure.  (Confronting Suburban Poverty, 9) 

The subsidization of and obsession with new construction, coupled with a lack of investment in rehabilitation, is one key cause of suburban poverty.

The suburbanization of poverty has not only been about long-time suburban residents falling into poverty, but also about poor residents moving from urban or rural areas into the suburbs.

Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube also describe two other big factors which contributed to the suburbanization of poverty: the increasing prevalence of housing voucher availability in suburban areas, and the tumultuous housing market and foreclosure crisis. The increase in voucher availability meant that lower income families who qualify for such benefits were able to easily move to the suburbs where they had previously only been able to live in urban areas. Crucially, Kneebone and Berube point out that the suburbanization of poverty has not only been about long-time suburban residents falling into poverty, but also about poor residents moving from urban or rural areas into the suburbs. Housing vouchers were one factor that facilitated this.

The foreclosure crisis has been written and spoken about at length by many other intelligent sources so I won’t go into detail on that, but suffice it to say that the recent burst of the housing bubble in the late 2000s is deeply connected with suburban poverty.

Finally, a general decline in employment options and increase in poverty as a result of the recession has naturally touched the suburbs like everywhere else. The bills are coming due and suburban living is expensive. The upkeep of all those wide high-speed roads, the lawns in need of constant watering, the swimming pools, the long driveways, the large single-family homes…as public and private money dwindles, so many suburban landscapes are simply not financially sustainable.

The Numbers on Suburban Poverty 

In looking at the numbers on suburban poverty, let’s start with the simple fact that, as the Metropolitan Policy Institute reports, “Today, more poor people live in the suburbs than in America’s big cities or rural areas. Suburbia is home to almost 16.4 million poor people, compared to 13.4 million in big cities and 7.3 million in rural areas.” That’s a staggering statistic.

The Brookings Institution is one of the primary organizations conducting research on suburban poverty. In 2014, they produced a report (which has been cited frequently by many news sources) on the topic of “concentrated poverty.” That is, neighborhoods where 20% or more of the residents live below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012). Here are some revealing statistics on suburban poverty shared in that Brookings report, “The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-2012”:

(Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)

Suburban communities experienced the fastest pace of growth in the number of poor residents living in concentrated poverty over this time period. Between 2000 and 2008-2012, the number of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 139 percent—almost three times the pace of growth in cities […]

By 2012, suburbs were home to nearly as many high poverty tracts as cities (4,313 versus 5,353), and almost half (46 percent) of all metro area poor residents living in high-poverty tracts lived in suburbs. (emphasis added)

In other words, the presence of poverty in the suburbs has grown. The typical suburb outside of a metropolitan area may be looking a lot more like a poor inner city neighborhood: boarded up homes, vacant storefronts. And the poor who live in suburbs? They are no longer an anomaly; at least one in five of their neighbors is probably facing similar financial struggles.

To add another distortion to the common face of poverty, know that Brookings research indicates that since the year 2000, white residents have come to occupy a greater percentage of high poverty suburban areas. While proportionally fewer African Americans and Latinos lived in high poverty tracts in the suburbs studied in the Brookings report between 2000 and 2012, the amount of white residents living in high-poverty tracts actually increased by 8% in that time frame. 

A final statistic that might surprise readers is that nearly 50% of homes in these high-poverty suburban census tracts were owner-occupied. These are communities theoretically anchored by plenty of owner-occupied houses, yet still they are poor.

The common depiction of poverty—single mothers, crumbling public housing, disabled veterans—must adjust to also accommodate the multifaceted nature of this problem. Poverty can mean owning a home, living in a suburb, driving your kids to school every day, and walking into a white collar job. It can happen to anyone.

47 percent of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 in the event of an emergency.

An Atlantic article on this topic called, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” went viral this May. Its central revelation was from a recent study by the Federal Reserve showing that 47 percent of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 in the event of an emergency. This suggests that millions of Americans are just one emergency—be it medical, health-related, or interpersonal—away from debt and potential poverty.

For homeowners (and so many suburban dwellers are homeowners), the risk is particularly high for mortgage default in the event of an emergency that drains a family’s finances. Whereas an urban dweller could sell his house or end his lease and move into a cheaper apartment nearby—due to the lack of different housing styles and price points in the suburbs, a suburban dweller would have to move much farther, switch his children to a different school, etc. if he wanted to live in an affordable apartment. Besides, as poverty grows in many suburbs, selling a suburban home can become more challenging.

The numbers on suburban poverty show us that this problem touches white and black, families and single people, urban and suburban… The prosperity that comes with owning a home and living in an affluent suburb may be a temporary illusion.

What are the impacts of suburban poverty?

 In 2015, the Atlantic ran a feature article on the topic of suburban poverty. It focused on the human stories behind the statistics:

There are more tangible problems that arise when poverty grows in the suburbs. Often, government structures change more slowly than the population at large, and residents find themselves represented—and policed—by people who don’t understand their needs or concerns. The unrest in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, over the past year, reflects this conflict.

Suburbs also have less transit than urban areas, making it difficult for low-income residents to get to jobs or buy groceries. And social services have been slow to follow the poor to the suburbs, so many suburban poor find themselves isolated and without a safety net, hidden from those who might be able to help.

The Atlantic tells a specific story of a middle-aged resident who recently moved to an Atlanta suburb where he resides in an extended-stay motel. His name is Gary Shelt and he works as a handyman. The story explains Shelt’s surprise at the lack of transit in his new neighborhood and the unreliable nature of the bus system, which makes him 45 minutes late for work.

And that’s just one story in one place. Other reports from the past ten years chronicle suburban poverty everywhere from Texas to Ohio to California.

Transportation is one of the most challenging barriers for poor people living in the suburbs. Kneebone and Berube report in Confronting Suburban Poverty:

Cars remain the most frequent mode of commuting for low-income suburban residents—74 percent drive alone and 12 percent carpool to and from work—but they can pose real financial burdens on those households. […]” (59) 

Interestingly, Kneebone and Berube also point out that suburban areas are actually much more transit-connected than most people would expect:

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). Yet having a transit stop nearby does not guarantee regular or reliable service, nor does it mean that extensive routes and connections are available within the region. In fact, the typical resident of a low-income suburban neighborhood served by transit can reach only 25 percent of metropolitan jobs within a generous ninety-minute commute, and just 4 percent within a forty-five minute window.” (60)

When faced with the prospect of an unreliable bus that might make them late to work, many poor suburban residents choose to continue to pay for a car. That means loan payments, maintenance expenses, and gas—a cost that can fluctuate dangerously high. Other options like biking and walking are unlikely to be feasible given the auto-oriented nature of most suburban environments. While suburbs may offer walking trails or sidewalks, those are likely to be framed as recreational and not reliably positioned as commuting corridors. And while biking or walking may be technically possible on suburban roads, those modes of transportation are unlikely to feel or be safe enough to enable a significant amount of bike- or walk-commuting.

The spectre of poverty haunts hundreds of American suburbs and effects millions of Americans. The factors that have led to the suburbanization of poverty—declining housing stock, federal subsidies for home creation but not upkeep, a tumultuous housing market, a lack of job opportunities, public infrastructure that has no hope of being maintained—these problems are not going away. American suburbs and suburban residents will need to figure out how to change the trajectory of their neighborhoods before things get worse.

We'll cover more of the impacts and problems of suburban poverty later this week.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo unless otherwise noted)

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