In stark contrast to the typical portrait of American suburban life and the widely held belief that poverty is an inner-city problem, new research has shown that there are now more poor people living in suburbs than big cities.
The number of people living in poverty in the suburbs increased 64 percent between 2000 and 2011, easily outpacing the 29 percent increase in the cities and surpassing the number of urban poor by almost 3 million, according to data released by the Brookings Institution last week.
That means the suburbs are home to a larger and faster-growing poor population than either cities or rural areas.
The findings are fleshed out in a new book called “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” written by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.
“If you’re poor in the Seattle, Atlanta or Chicago regions, you’re more likely than not living outside the city limits,” the authors wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times.
Researchers profiled 100 metropolitan areas including Seattle, which was no exception to the trend. Over the past decade, the number of suburban poor increased by almost 80 percent.
Kneebone and Berube found that South King County was particularly emblematic of what is happening in the nation at large.
“South King County encapsulates so many of the different forces that are contributing to suburban poverty in America today,” Berube said.
These forces include immigration, rising populations, job and wage changes and influxes of low-income families from inner cities seeking affordable housing, all catalyzed by the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis.
“One of the reasons we are excited about this research is that they’ve put on paper what we’ve noticed over the last few years,” said Nathan Phillips, director of the South King Council of Human Services. “We’ve seen our suspicions confirmed that poverty is growing fast in our communities outside of Seattle and that more work needs to be done to get better coordinated and address the issues.”
The landscape of poverty is changing, but public perception and policy haven’t necessarily changed with it. Services still target inner-city areas and aren’t tailored to the dispersed poverty of the suburbs.
The authors call for region-wide solutions that reach across suburban-city lines, as well as a competitive grant program called the “Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge” that would give states incentive to increase opportunities for low-income families.
Berube praised Project Road Map, a consortium of hundreds of stakeholders working to improve student achievement in South King County and south Seattle, as an innovative approach to addressing the suburbanization of poverty.
Philips hopes the research inspires new dialogue and new approaches to human services.