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Suburbs and the New Geography of Poverty

Ilana Novick

Concentrated poverty has a new address, and this time it's not in the inner city. For many Americans, moving to a house in the suburbs means they've "made it," and overcome the economic stumbling blocks that kept them in cramped city apartments.

But a new book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, flips this equation, suggesting poverty is now concentrated in America's suburbs. Today, while a third of America's poorest live in suburban areas, social service infrastructures haven't adjusted to poverty's new geography.

During the 2000s, for the first time, the number of poor people in major metropolitan suburbs surpassed the number in cities. Between 2000 and 2011, the poor population in suburbs grew by 64 percent—more than twice the rate of growth in cities (29 percent). By 2011, almost 16.4 million residents in suburbia lived below the poverty line, outstripping the poor population in cities by almost 3 million people.
According to the book, the areas with the highest increase in suburban poverty over the last decade are Cape Coral, Fla.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Greensboro-High Point, N.C.; Colorado Springs, Colo. and Atlanta, Georgia.

Why did this happen? Kneebone and Berube point to three main factors: the decline of middle class jobs in major cities particularly in the midwest, and the spread of office and industrial parks on the outskirts of major cities; the decline of older housing stock in cities and the increased use of housing vouchers in the suburbs; and the way that immigrants, seeking lower rents and more easily accessible jobs, are increasingly choosing suburban sprawl over major cities.
Too often, though, low-income people in the suburbs can't find jobs. Or get to the jobs that do exist. As Kneebone and Berube note: "limited or absent public transit in many suburban communities can make it more complicated for low-income suburban workers to overcome the jobs mismatch, especially if they are unable to afford and maintain a reliable car."
When the poorest suburbanites can't get a job, they turn to the social safety net, which according to the book, still hasn't caught up with suburban poverty. Organizations that serve the poor are likely to have better infrastructure and networks in cities. In a recent Huffington Post article on the book, Atlanta suburbs resident Ladona Peoples noted that while she loves living in the suburbs for it's peace and quiet, she might have been better off in her old neighborhood, following unexpected health problems that forced her to leave her job,"You have resources out there," she said. "You have people who are willing to help. You have agencies that are trying to help you in anyway way they possibly can."

Politically, the perception remains that poverty is an urban problem, which makes addressing suburban poverty even harder. The authors of the report stress that before any solutions can be implemented, the geographic changes must be acknowledged.

As for those solutions, the authors propose that the federal government dedicate funds for a program called they call the Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge. through a competitive application process. The applicants would be required to explain how their programs would provide opportunities for low-income suburban residents through scalable, collaborative, and flexibly funded solutions. Sounds good, but whose going to pay for it?

The authors suggest re-routing five percent of existing federal anti-poverty funding to award $4 billion to states, who would choose the winners. The winning programs would help low-income people in a diverse array of places in their areas overcome barriers to housing, healthcare, and jobs.

In addition to targeting poverty in specific communities, The Challenge would offer incentives for states and regions (and maybe even the private sector) to fund even more programs, and to attract funding streams beyond the original grants.

A portion of these grants could be used to “pay for success,” rewarding states and regions that meet predetermined metrics of success, as set by the federal government.
It remains to be seen whether the Federal government would be willing to step up and contribute to such a grant program, or if the existing programs in urban areas could be scaled or retooled to cover the suburbs. Most importantly, however, government and non-profit organizations alike need to acknowledge that poverty has moved and spread, and shift resources accordingly.