fb-pixel Skip to main content

Poverty finds the suburbs

Our tools haven’t caught up to the shifting map of social need, says a new report

A boarded up home in a housing development in Warrensville, Ohio.Dustin Franz for The New York Times

Moving to the suburbs used to mean having made it—having earned the house, the car, the lawn—and being set for the long haul. But over the past decades, the suburbs have changed. Dream houses have fallen into disrepair; dream jobs have disappeared. As urban housing costs soared, immigrants with few resources bypassed cities to be closer to suburban jobs, and low-income families moved further out in search of opportunity. Meanwhile, as the economy shuddered, established middle-class suburbanites saw their incomes shrink.

By the mid-2000s, more Americans were living below the poverty line in suburbs than in cities. In the Boston metropolitan area, census data from 2010 showed that more than two-thirds of the region’s poor population was settled in the suburbs.

As poverty has grown where it’s least expected, it’s been exposing the weakness of the tools the government uses to fight back, say Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, who have spent the last few years extensively documenting these changes.

In a new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” they point out that poverty in America has been defined as a primarily urban problem, and our approaches to fighting it—block grants for community development and services, housing tax credits, food programs—often miss the suburban poor. Community health clinics, for instance, are located where concentrations of poverty are highest, in dense neighborhoods like Dorchester or the South Bronx—meaning they’re all but inaccessible to people living in more sprawling suburban communities, sometimes without access either to a car or to public transportation. Often, tiny suburban governments, left on their own, don’t have the resources to even begin to navigate the 80 federal programs, spread over 10 agencies, that might be able to provide assistance.

In their book, Kneebone and Berube lay out the challenges that suburban poverty creates, and suggest a plan for how to rejigger the creaky mechanisms of federal poverty policy to do something about it. Kneebone spoke to Ideas from her office in Washington, D.C.


IDEAS: Why is this trend so surprising to people? Even some of the service providers you talked to didn’t recognize that suburban poverty has become such a problem.

KNEEBONE: Some of it may be that people don’t see the need that’s growing in their own community. They’re familiar with organizations operating in cities and see that there’s still a need. Suburban poverty can be more spread out and less visible. We think of suburbs as one kind of thing, when really they’re a very diverse mix of places.


IDEAS: One of the most striking numbers you report about Boston is that the number of students on free or reduced price lunch went up 27.5 percent between 2005 and 2010 in the suburbs, while staying basically flat in the city.

KNEEBONE: This is very typical of what we’ve seen in other places. What I think that points to is the strain on infrastructure that can accompany these trends. Talking to school districts and schools, they’re often on the front lines. Especially if there’s not a robust support system in the community, parents will come to the schools first.

IDEAS: You found that the current system isn’t working for these communities.

KNEEBONE: It was built for a different geography of poverty. Urban neighborhoods may have assets to start with, like transit or job growth nearby. Not all suburbs are set up like that. When you think about the distance people in suburbs have to travel to access brick-and-mortar services, you can’t take what we did in the cities and create it whole-cloth in the same way.

Often these are places that don’t have the infrastructure in place to address the needs of a growing low-income population. If you’re talking about New England, suburbs are often very fragmented. You can have small jurisdictions that are grappling with a problem that is regional in scope. The legacy system gets in the way of jurisdictions working together to access funding streams.


IDEAS: So even if suburbs are trying to fix these problems, they run into obstacles at the federal level?

KNEEBONE: The example we talk about in the book comes from the suburbs of Chicago. There are more than 280 jurisdictions in the suburbs. When the foreclosure crisis hit, some of the worst hit areas in Chicago were the south suburbs. Instead of competing against each other for neighborhood stabilization funds, you had 19 jurisdictions come together to think about things differently—how do we get together and think about a shared challenge? They succeeded in getting $9 million of funding, but because they were up against a system that wasn’t used to dealing with this kind of cooperation, they received funding for 11 jurisdictions separately. All the cost savings were lost.

IDEAS: In the book, you and your coauthor propose a $4 billion national challenge, sort of like Race to the Top, in which states compete for funding, to start regional, collaborative projects that start tying all these different resources and places together.

KNEEBONE: An investment like this can make people think differently about these things as they’re competing for these funds. You want to help support them do these innovative things. Collaborating is hard. Integrating is hard. Finding the right model is hard. Especially thinking about fragmented suburbs, where election cycles mean that there can be a lot of turnover, these relationships are always a bit in flux.


That’s why it’s important to have these structures and incentives in place. The old mayor might have understood why it was important to do this work, but the new mayor might be getting up to speed or have other priorities. The incentives bring him to the table.

IDEAS: So the goal is for it to shift thinking over the long term?

KNEEBONE: Right now, resources are limited and being cut back in ways that aren’t intentional. We have to be smart about adapting to this new geography. It should feel urgent. Concentrated poverty has started growing in suburbs, too. And we know all of the challenges that evolve when that kind of concentrated poverty develops. If in the 1970s they had known what was going to happen—if they had anticipated the disinvestment in distressed areas, let’s hope they would have done things differently.


Number of poor living in the suburbs


Increase in suburban poor, 2000-2011

13.4 m

Number of poor living in cities


Increase in urban poor, 2000-2011

SOURCE: Brookings Institution, figures are for 2011

Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian’s SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.