Spotlight Exclusives

Suburbs: The New Frontier of American Poverty

Scott W. Allard, University of Washington Scott W. Allard, University of Washington, posted on

Several years ago, I was invited to join a listening tour organized by a suburban regional social service provider. Along with representatives from the philanthropic community, I spent a day riding a bus across the region, meeting with suburban nonprofit leaders and hearing about the severity of poverty problems in their communities.

The experience challenged presumptions we had about poverty and place in America. Many on the tour were astounded by the depth of poverty in these suburbs, often remarking about how similar conditions felt to the high-poverty neighborhoods of the neighboring central city. The tour also clearly showed how poverty problems were a reality for long-term residents of these suburban communities, not just recent arrivals, and affected families of all races and ethnicities.

Since 1990, the number of people living in poverty has doubled in suburbs—almost three times the rate of population growth. In fact, there are actually more poor people today living in suburbs than in cities. For more than 17 million suburban residents, a long-running economic recovery has simply not done enough to raise the low wages found in many full-time jobs. Instead, millions of suburban families face impossible choices between putting food on the table, paying for child care, making rent or the mortgage, staying current on bills, or keeping the car running.

I found while traveling the country for my book Places in Need that this trend is not limited to inner-ring suburbs or a handful of communities—it’s happening across the suburban landscape. From the sprawl around Los Angeles, to bedroom communities in Chicago, to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs bordering Washington, DC, demographic and labor market change – above all, the disappearance of good paying, low-skill jobs – have turned the “crabgrass frontier” into the next frontier of American poverty.

At the same time, poverty in cities and rural areas remain at or near historic levels. Despite the extended periods of economic growth and expansion over the last three decades, problems of deep and concentrated poverty remain persistent features of the urban and rural landscape.

As I argue in Places in Need, it is time to rethink the common presumptions we make about poverty, place, and race. Poverty is a problem in all places, not just cities or remote rural areas. America’s suburbs have been suffering an invisible crisis of poverty for some time, rivaling the level of deprivation that has been all too familiar in cities and rural communities for several decades.

Poverty also is a reality experienced by all Americans regardless of race or ethnicity. Yet, our political rhetoric, research, journalism, and everyday conversations obscure this reality, masking the fact that poverty problems have grown worse in all places and for all groups over the past 30 years.

It is clear from my work in dozens of cities, suburbs, and rural regions that inaccurate impressions of poverty determine how well we help (or don’t help) those in need. When we conceive of poverty as being just an urban and rural phenomenon, we implicitly see it as a problem for “others.” It becomes easier to see poor people as responsible for their hardships and undeserving of help. We imagine that it is the job of other communities or places to address poverty. These perceptions undermine support for safety net programs and dampen our private philanthropic efforts. The end result is a nonprofit safety net infrastructure in the suburbs that is incapable of meeting local needs and that pales in comparison to what is found in cities.

What will it take to lift places – urban, suburban, and rural – out of poverty? While it is time to rethink the nature of poverty in America, the path forward requires us to recommit to the safety net programs we know are most effective, but which today are targeted for deep cuts in Congress and many statehouses across the country.

First, we must continue to fund and ensure access to crucial anti-poverty programs like SNAP, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. These programs provide critical assistance to low-income families and are helping hands as those families try to grab the next rung on the economic ladder. Moreover, these federally funded programs are responsive to the shifts in the geography of poverty seen in metropolitan areas over the past thirty years and often provide similar benefits regardless of where one lives. Efforts to impose work requirements or block grant these programs will undermine their effectiveness and responsiveness.

Next, we should push to increase – rather than slash, as the current White House budget does – federal funds for social service programs that operate through community-based nonprofits. Such organizations are the glue that hold communities together, but far too many suburban (as well as urban and rural communities) lack the nonprofit infrastructure needed to help working poor families.

Finally, we must work intentionally in our communities to cultivate a new generation of leaders that understand the challenges families face on the ground and who can develop more effective policy tools. This generation of leaders also will be critical to helping different communities recognize their shared fate around these issues and the need to work together to reduce poverty across the geographic landscape.

Ultimately, poverty becomes more entrenched in our communities when we act according to the myths and misperceptions of poverty. If we are able to see poverty as a problem for all Americans – whether rural, urban, or suburban – all places and all Americans will be better off.

Scott W. Allard is a Professor at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. His book “Places in Need” was published in June by the Russell Sage Foundation.

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