Between 2000 and 2011, poverty in America’s cities grew 29 percent. Over the same period, suburban poverty rose 64 percent. In 2011, the number of poor people in the suburbs of major metropolitan cities exceeded the number of poor in cities by about 3 million. According to research published in a recently released book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, by the Brookings Institution, there is a new reality, “a new geography of poverty,” that the nation and policymakers do not yet fully recognize.
The lack of awareness — a general blindness to the growing distress in the suburbs — in part stems from a perception, increasingly false, that poverty is confined to urban centers and scattered rural communities. Another factor that makes suburban poverty largely invisible is that suburbs long have been perceived as providing a different and better life away from the problems of cities. Thus poverty (which federal guidelines in 2011 considered to be an annual income up to $10,890 for a one-person household) is not part of the popular conception of suburban life. The Brookings research demonstrates otherwise.
In the Akron metropolitan area during the past decade, growth in suburban poverty outpaced urban poverty 96.9 percent to 50.8 percent. More than half of the area’s nearly 114,000 poor live outside Akron. In each of Ohio’s metropolitan areas, suburban poverty grew more than 80 percent, except for Youngstown (39.9 percent).
The Brookings report makes clear that poverty today is a regional phenomenon. It observes that current approaches and structures that have evolved over decades to address urban poverty have not caught up with the reality.
For instance, in many metro areas, including Akron, the major cities have lost jobs and population, leading to rapid growth in surrounding suburbs. But for the new suburbanites lower down on the income scale, there has not been an equivalent increase in such infrastructure as affordable housing or mass transit access to the jobs. Smaller suburbs also are less likely to have the extensive support network that ease the sting of poverty, such as food pantries and community health clinics. Further, job losses and the foreclosure crisis during the Great Recession aggravated the plight of lower-income suburban residents.
Poverty is regionalized. The challenges in dealing with it go well beyond the capacity of individual municipalities and agencies to tackle effectively on their own. Therein lies the challenge the Brookings findings pose for metro areas: To collaborate in addressing the structural limitations that contribute to poverty in cities and suburbs alike, among them job education, the availability of affordable housing, access to mass transit.