The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poverty is growing twice as fast in the suburbs as in cities

Placeholder while article actions load

At some point during the 2000s, America reached an unexpected milestone: There are now more poor people living in the suburbs than in the inner cities.

That stat comes from a big new Brookings Institution book by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. They find that between 2000 and 2011, the number of suburban poor in the United States grew by 64 percent — more than double the rate in the cities:

In 2012, there were an estimated 16.4 million poor people living in the suburbs, compared with 13.4 million in the cities. Granted, it's worth putting this in context. There are three times as many total people living in America's suburbs, so the overall rate of suburban poverty is still much, much lower. But the recent rapid uptick is striking.

So why is this geographic shift happening? The website for the Brookings book lists a couple of big reasons:

1) The biggest driver is that suburbs simply grew faster than urban areas during the 2000s, particularly in the South. At the same time, jobs have been migrating to the suburbs for many years — and that includes low-paying jobs in retail and hospitality. As a result, many of the working poor have been moving to the suburbs, too.

2) There's increasingly more affordable housing in suburban areas, attracting poorer Americans away from the city. ("By the end of 2010," the report notes, "roughly half of residents in voucher households lived in suburbs.")

3) The recession hit manufacturing and construction particularly hard, and both of those industries were concentrated in the suburbs. And the housing crash devastated many suburban communities.

4) Immigration played a role, albeit a minor one: "Although foreign-born residents accounted for 30 percent of the overall population growth in suburban areas, they contributed just 17 percent to the increase in overall suburban poor during the 2000s."

There also are wide disparities from city to city. El Paso, Tex., has a suburban poverty rate of 36.4 percent. Meanwhile, Hartford, Conn., and Omaha, Neb., have suburban poverty rates of just 7.8 percent. But suburban poverty was rising just about everywhere, from booming cities like Phoenix to stagnant metros like Cleveland.

So why does any of this matter? For one, as Emily Badger reports over at Atlantic Cities, many suburban areas aren't quite as prepared to handle an influx of poverty:

Many suburbs, for instance, don't have the kinds of public transit networks that can connect impoverished neighborhoods to job opportunities. And it's significantly harder to address poverty through transportation when low-income households in need of it live dispersed over larger areas. Suburbs also simply lack the built-in networks of service providers that have grown up over decades in inner-city communities.

The Brookings authors also suggest that the suburbanization of poverty could put a strain on safety-net programs: "The federal government spends $82 billion dollars a year across more than 80 programs to address poverty in place," the authors note. "But the spread-out nature of suburban poverty, and the lack of expert public and non-profit service providers in suburbs, mean that most of those dollars remain focused on urban communities."

They do add that it's a mixed picture overall: "While some poor people living in the suburbs enjoy better housing, safer neighborhoods and higher achieving schools than those in cities, others face lengthy, costly commutes to work; a lack of reliable transportation; and an absence of basic health and social services that are often more fully available and established in cities."

Further reading: There's a lot more on the book's Web site, including in-depth profiles of a handful of suburbs that have seen poverty rates rise (including Montgomery County, Md.). There's also some commentary on this topic from Emily Badger (and here), Josh Harkinson, Joel Kotkin and Reihan Salam.