Spotlight Exclusives

Flipping the Script on Place, Poverty, and the Safety Net in America

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Recent Census Bureau data find nearly 50 million Americans living below the federal poverty line and another 50 million living precariously close to that threshold. Despite such historic figures, popular misconceptions about where poverty is located and how we can help the poor abound.

Common wisdom holds that most poor persons live in central cities or remote rural areas and are dependent on welfare cash assistance programs. As a result, poverty is perceived to be about urban disadvantage, need in distant rural places, and welfare dependence, making it easier for our suburban society to dismiss and ignore.

Yet the truth is that poverty has become a startling suburban reality. Poverty rates remain quite high in urban areas, but there are more poor persons in the suburbs of our largest metropolitan areas today than in their central cities. Even many newer suburban communities far outside of central cities have experienced unprecedented increases in need.

To better serve the poor and strengthen our communities, we must flip the script about poverty and assistance in America. The problems of poverty are felt in all communities. The danger of falling into poverty can reach all of our families, friends, and neighbors. It۪s time to think differently about who is poor in America if we really want to make a difference.

Although the geography of poverty has been shifting, the challenges of living in poverty are nearly the same everywhere. Families struggle to provide the basics while looking for a better job and trying to provide a better future for their children.

Suburban poverty is driven by the same factors as in cities or rural areasdiminishing numbers of good-paying jobs for those without a college degree or advanced training, increased numbers of working poor immigrants, and the collapse of the housing market. The Great Recession exacerbated problems of suburban poverty, but need has been rising in many suburban communities for more than a decade.
In addition to a lack of awareness about the scope of suburban poverty, many Americans harbor serious misconceptions about how we assist the poor. For example, too few recognize that welfare cash assistance is a relatively small component of today۪s safety net and helps only a tiny fraction of the poor. Our safety net provides far more assistance to millions of low-income Americans through social service programs that deliver emergency food and shelter, support job searches, promote child development, and address health needs.

For every dollar spent on welfare cash assistance through TANF, the U.S. spends about $10 on social service programs, with most social service assistance delivered through community-based nonprofits. And it turns out that this approach, which relies on church food pantries, organizations like the United Way, or community clinics, actually represents the preferences of most Americans. The truth is that many prefer to help low-income individuals through local community-based nonprofit organizations that promote work activity and greater well being.

Yet because we focus on poverty as an urban phenomenon and overstate the role of cash assistance, we are blinded from the profound challenges confronting social service providers in all of our communities.

Most low-income areas in cities, suburbs, and rural communities lack adequate access to needed social services. Levels of access also are particularly low in predominately African American or Hispanic neighborhoods.

At the same time, providers are serving more people with fewer program dollars. Government funding for social service programs has been cut dramatically in recent years. Private and corporate philanthropy for social services also has declined significantly. Ironically, the social service programs that rest at the core of our safety net have contracted just as need is rising. These realities destabilize the nonprofit organizations upon which the safety net depends today and ensure there will be less help available tomorrow.

The answer to these challenges is to “flip the script” on poverty in America.

We must recognize that welfare is no longer the dominant way we provide help. Today۪s antipoverty assistance is far more likely to come in the form of community-based organizations attempting to promote self-sufficiency and healthier lives. This is in part because poverty has become a truly metropolitan phenomenonpervading suburbs as well as cities. 

To transform these insights into solutions, metropolitan areas can pursue broad-based collaborative solutions to poverty that better reflect the mobility of families today and the regional nature of our labor markets. It also is essential we strengthen our private commitments to nonprofit social service organizations. Only about $1 of every $10 in charitable giving goes to a nonprofit that works with the poor, and levels of giving have stayed flat for the last decade.

Finally, successfully flipping the script can improve political will for effective solutions. Our communities can rally around local nonprofit organizations that provide so much critical assistance to the poor. We can maintain public commitments to social service programs and avoid drastic cuts being contemplated in Washington D.C. and statehouses around the country.

Ultimately, by reconceiving poverty in America and reinvigorating our commitments to the safety net, we can help ensure all Americans have a chance to grab the next rung on the ladder and remain true to American values about how to provide help to those in need.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Scott W. Allard is an associate professor at the University of Chicago۪s School of Social Service Administration and director of the University of Chicago Urban Network.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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