When most people think about poverty in America, they likely see a blighted inner-city neighborhood, someplace that the middle class abandoned decades ago.
But that image may no longer be apt: As several recent reports have stressed, more Americans are now living below the poverty line in suburbs than in cities. And thanks in part to the Great Recession, suburban poverty continues to rise sharply. What’s more, many suburbs may not be as well set up as urban areas are to provide much-needed social services. Researchers fear that porous suburban safety nets are leaving a growing number of struggling Americans without access to the basic assistance they need to get them through hard times.
And before such needs get met, experts say, policymakers need to reckon with the changed state of poverty in America. “We have to first change our perception, and catch up to the new reality of where poverty is,” Elizabeth Kneebone, a researcher with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told The Upshot. “It’s still a problem in cities, but it’s an increasingly suburban problem as well.”
As recently as 2000, more poor Americans were living in cities than in suburbs. But since then, according to a report released earlier this year by Kneebone and a Brookings colleague, Emily Garr, the ranks of the suburban poor have grown by 37 percent — more than twice the rate that poverty increased in the nation’s cities. As a result, although the poverty rate remains higher in cities, by last year 1.6 million more poor people were in suburbs than in cities.This trend was under way before the economic downturn began in late 2007 — but researchers say that the Great Recession appears to have exacerbated it. “This recession has had an economic effect on suburbs that past recessions haven’t,” says Scott Allard, an expert on poverty and social welfare at the University of Chicago. “This is the first time suburbs have experienced significant levels of job losses.”
Some ground-level reporting has helped flesh out the picture of growing suburban poverty. The proprietor of a food pantry in Northern California’s suburban San Mateo County recently told CBS News that in 1999, her charity had given out 4,000 food bags. This year, she said, it’ll be between 32,000 and 35,000 bags.
Why is suburban poverty disproportionately on the rise? One reason, say experts, is that the recession was triggered by a slowdown in the housing market, as foreclosures mounted particularly in suburban and exurban developments. That meant that industries dependent on that market — which also tend to be based in suburbs — were among the most severe casualties. “Construction, real estate, manufacturing — these are more suburbanized industries, and they were hit first and hardest,” says Kneebone.
Not surprisingly, the rise in poverty and joblessness has put greater strain on social service providers in suburban areas. A report released this month by Allard and his University of Chicago colleague Benjamin Roth (no relation to this reporter) found that 73 percent of suburban nonprofits are seeing more clients with no previous connection to safety-net programs.
But these providers — who administer programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, welfare cash assistance, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program) — may not be equipped to deal with the flood. That’s in part because, thanks to the broader economic climate, many of them are experiencing cutbacks in their own private and public funding.
More fundamentally, observers say, many suburbs, whose residents have in the past been disproportionately affluent, simply aren’t set up to serve the poor. As Allard and Roth found, most suburban communities lack the kind of social service programs commonly found in urban areas, which have been grappling with poverty for decades. And some suburban nonprofits have trouble raising money from donors, because of the perception that poverty is predominantly an urban ill.
As a result, Allard said he found that “in many communities where need was rising, providers had fewer resources, fewer programs, fewer staff to help. And that creates kind of a bitterly ironic situation for low-income populations as they seek to cope with job loss, find work and provide for their families.”
Advocates for the poor are urging the government to boost support for service providers, so that those serving suburban communities can be adequately funded, without taking scarce resources away from urban providers. But given enormous federal and state deficits, that may be a tough sell.
And the problem isn’t likely to get better anytime soon, even if the economy picks up. “Just as the poverty rate has been increasing in the suburbs for 10 years, it’s not like once we hit recovery, the poverty rate will diminish,” says Allard. “This will be an issue that these communities will have to deal with for a while.”