Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content

Suburban poverty a challenge

For decades, Americans have associated the suburbs with the “good life.” They have regarded the suburbs as prosperous sanctuaries from the ills that afflict cities and have strived to move to them. The past decade, however, has seen the rapid growth of a suburban reality that challenges this middle-class stereotype: poverty.

Three million more people now live in poverty in the suburbs than live in America’s inner cities, according to Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, a book by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube released recently by the Brookings Institution.

This change not only forces us to reconsider our perception of suburban America, but it also leaves anti-poverty programs designed in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty ill-suited to dealing with the problem of suburban poverty.

Kneebone and Berube suggest governments and organizations develop regional strategies to address poverty. It’s clear that focusing resources on urban poverty is no longer adequate. A rethinking is in order to connect the poor everywhere with greater opportunity.

The rise in suburban poverty has been dramatic. From 2000 to 2011, the number of suburban Americans living below the federal poverty line (about $23,000 for a family of four) increased 64 percent, to 16.4 million. Meanwhile, the number of poor people living in cities increased by 29 percent, to 13.4 million.

The number of suburban poor in the five-county Austin metro area increased 142.5 percent from 2000 to 2011.

Among the factors contributing to the rise of suburban poverty: An increasing number of lower-income Austin residents moved to the suburbs looking for affordable housing as their neighborhoods gentrified; immigrants followed cheaper housing and low-paying, service-sector jobs to the suburbs; and the economy and the changing nature of manufacturing and white-collar jobs knocked middle-class suburban residents down the economic ladder.

To be clear, urban poverty has not disappeared. Cities still have a larger percentage of people living in poverty — 22 percent — than the national suburban average of 12 percent. The number of people living below the poverty line in Austin increased 76.6 percent from 2000 to 2011.

But poverty in the suburbs is uniquely challenging and isolating, Kneebone and Berube say. Transportation is a major issue. The cost of driving greater distances strains already tight finances. And a lack of public transportation options puts jobs and services out of reach. For those low-income suburban residents who have access to public transportation, only 12 percent of jobs in the Austin metro area can be reached within 90 minutes.

Kneebone and Berube are fully aware that shrinking resources afflict anti-poverty programs everywhere. The challenges are greater than ever, and the growth of suburban poverty arrives at a time when federal anti-poverty programs are under siege and misanthropic attitudes toward the poor are on the rise.

Solutions for ameliorating poverty always will be easier proposed than achieved. Evaluate and invest in those proposals that work, Kneebone and Berube argue. To stick with policies rooted in the past or, worse, to ignore the problem of poverty altogether, is to deepen it.

Austin American-Statesman