Monday, August 28, 2017

The Persistent Myth of Suburban Poverty; July 6, 2017

Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a fresh week on the blog.  Before we get started, it is all eyes on Houston, Texas and the survivors of Hurricane Harvey.  If you would like to help the good people of Houston, you can text your donation to 90999 (minimum $10 donation) or you can go to for a list of organization's collecting much needed material donations such as diapers, water, medicines, food. Blogger would like to wish Houstonians a bright future with nothing but good things.  Stay safe.  On to today's subject: the myths of suburban poverty.

The word suburbs conjures up an image of nice houses, pretty gardens, families, and plenty of places to park.  Scratch the surface, and this idyllic image gives way to a much more serious problem: poverty.  Suburban poverty is not a new issue, however it is not considered much of a problem (; May 20, 2017; date accessed Aug. 28, 2017).  Words like "inner city" is often code "poor, black,urban communities" ( Oct. 12, 2016; date accessed Aug. 28, 2017) receive the lion's share of attention and resources.  What you do find is a lot myths surrounding the not too serious issue of suburban poverty.  Tanvi Misra confronts those myths in her CityLab article "Confronting the Myths of Suburban Poverty."

She writes, "While some communities have grappled with local solutions [; Oct 31, 2017; date accessed Aug. 28, 2017), by and large, the rising poverty in American suburbs has been allowed to fester and grow, [; May 23, 2013; date accessed Aug. 28, 2017], catalyzed by the Great Recession [; August. 4, 2017; date accessed Aug. 28, 2017]."  Simultaneously, suburban demographics have changed. As the cost of living in the cities has rapidly increased, immigrants (; Aug. 28, 2017) and communities of color have found a home outside the center-only to confront the exact same issues they left behind.

Recently, University of Washington professor of public policy Scott Wallard (; Aug. 28, 2017) published the book Places in Need. Prof. Wallard takes a deep dive into the depths of "data on the changing geography of poverty, debunking misconceptions about which suburbs are getting poorer-and why."  CityLab sat down with him to discuss his findings.  What follows re excerpts from that interview.

CL: "Does every type of suburb have a poverty problem?"

SW: A lot of our discourse around suburban poverty says, "Well, suburban poverty probably is really a problem for old inner-tier suburbs that are bordering higher poverty neighborhoods in cities."  But poverty is pervasive across the suburban regions of all metros,...In fact, the rates of change have been more servers in newer suburbs-those built after 1970-than in older suburbs.  When you break out the suburban regions, there more poor people in the newer suburbs, combined than in the older suburbs.  That's an important finding.

...there's quite a bit of variation.  You can find older or newer suburbs that saw severe increases in poverty and you can find others  where things haven't changed all that much.

The difference in the experience of poverty in older suburbs compared to newer suburbs is often one of distance from the central city.  There are transportation and job access issues that low-income adults face...the distances are just greater in the outer-ring suburbs.  Low-income households in both types of communities often experience isolation from opportunity, racial segregation, and a marginalization from politics...This is particularly true for immigrants and people of color.

CL: "You argue in the book that suburban poverty is everybody's problem.  What demographic evidence from your research backs that claim?"

SW: What you see is fairly consistent increases in poverty across race and ethnic groups in the suburbs.  The increase among whites are large and substantial, as are increase among blacks and Hispanics.  Whites are a plurality of poor people,...

There are a couple of other demographic changes that are important to realizes here, too.  One is the increase in the share of households in suburbs that are single-parent households...we know those households are the most vulnerable to falling into poverty.  The place in suburbs where poverty problems have become acute are where a larger share of the population doesn't have advanced training or education past high school.

That reflects the reality of today's labor market, where there are no longer large numbers of good-paying, low-skilled jobs in suburban regions.  And the jobs that are available to workers without college degrees or some advanced training often don't lift there families out of poverty.

CL: "You complicate the notion that these places are becoming power solely because of an influx of of poor immigrants and poor people of color.  What's the role that migration plays in the suburbanization of poverty?"

SW: One of the common narratives around rising poverty problems in the suburbs is that this is the result of poor families moving from the central city out...increases in poverty are related to out-migration from the cities.  But those migration trends have been present for more than 50 years...[for better schools, safer neighborhoods, community amenities] That pattern persists today, but is not as likely to be the largest or most important factor in many places.  In fact, the most important factor is change in the labor marke-the declined of the number of good-paying low-skilled jobs. 

Immigration to the U.S. is an important demographic trend related to the shifting geography of poverty. Today, more immigrants to the U.S. locate in suburbs upon arrival than at any point in American history...these immigrant families are working often multiple jobs but not earning enough to lift their families out of poverty.  Some communities have seen really significant increases in the number of immigrants from around the globe.  But it's something that all communities have experienced-...that's not the largest factor driving these trends.

You see that because the increasing number of poor people in suburbs is about three times the rate of population growth...there are lots of people who have lived in suburbs for a long time who either have been poor, or have fallen into poverty over...time.

CL: " Why are suburbs so ill-equipped to deal with this problems?"

SW: Since the war on poverty, federal and state invests in anti-poverty programs have largely been funneled into urban centers and urban counties....we've built extensive nonprofit human service capacity in out cities...In the 1960s, poverty was highly concentrated in cities and it remains so.  One of the realities of the rise of suburban poverty is that it hasn't corresponded with a decrease in urban poverty.  But we just lack that similar capacity to tackle the problems in suburban areas.  Our public investments need to keep pace with the changing geography of poverty.

One reason why we lack nonprofit human services relates to the perception gap that we have about poverty being urban.  In many suburban regions, nonprofits have a hard time attracting funding from charitable foundations, partly because those foundations aren't aware of poverty problems in the suburbs of their metros, or they can't make grants outside the city.

...when you try [to] deliver human service programs across suburban regions, you encounter a lot of fragmentation.  A typical food bank in a large metro may have to work across several county borders, dozens of mucipalities, and lots of different school districts...Not all communities re supportive or have the resources to support the mission.  That fragmentation also creates competitive pressures where no one is really eager to commit their own resources to anti-poverty programs, because they may be worries about their public image...Some places also worry that if they provide anti-poverty services, they will end up attracting poor people, even though that's not likely to be the case.

CL: "How do you think things are likely to change under the current administration?"

SW: One of the false narratives I push back against in the book is that poverty is a problem for cities, and in particular for people of color.  That's a big element of the political rhetoric of this administration...They affect all types of families of all races and ethnicities.  That rhetoric creates an "othering" of poverty, and it undermines our support for safety net program and services.  Rhetoric really matters-it directly shape how we think our responsibilities and who we think of as deserving of help.

The federal budget proposals that are being discussed and the health care bills will undermine some of the most critical, responsive parts of the safety net.  The SNAP program [; May 23, 2017; date accessed Aug. 28, 2017], is one of our most successful, impactful anti-poverty programs...The same is true for the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program that runs through the tax code.  We should be doing things to expand, enhance, and strengthen those programs or at least maintain our commitments to them.  The current federal budget [proposals] don't do that.

They also aren't going to do anything to strengthen the service provider capacity in the suburbs...they will weaken what little infrastructure exists dramatically.  A lot of services provided to low-income households are financed through Medicaid...[These and other cuts to the safety net] are going to be lead a double-whammy in the next recession.

CL: "What are your recommendations to decrease suburban poverty?"

SW: One, we need to maintain our public commitments to safety net programs we know are most effective at reducing poverty...we should be expanding our federal investments for services so that we can build capacity in suburban and rural communities.

We also need to think about our private commitments.  Part of this getting beyond some of the perception gaps and making sure that we're expanding personal philanthropy to support work in the suburban and rural places.

And then finally, we need to start to think of way we can cultivate and train the next generation of local nonprofit leaders.  These are young people who are from communities, from communities of that have experienced increases in poverty, who can not only think about innovative solutions but also...implement those solution with trust from community and cultural competency.

We're not likely to solve poverty problems in cities or suburbs if we don't act together as metro regions.  Our labor markets are intimately intertwined and there's good reason to believe that our anti-poverty efforts are intimately intertwined. If we don't work together to solve poverty problems that affect both places, we're not likely to succeed at alleviating poverty in any place.

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