Confronting suburban poverty – or celebrating suburban resilience?

Suburban poverty is in the headlines again these weeks after the publication of Brookings researchers Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube’s new book,Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, which augments previous empirical work with fascinating case studies. But with the suburban poverty rates hovering around 11 percent, relative to 21 percent in cities, the question arises: is it suburban poverty or resilience that they are finding?


The story Brookings tells is about the higher poverty growth rates in the suburbs. However, growing suburban poverty is tracking increases in national and metropolitan poverty rates. The questions then become, why does suburban poverty remain so much lower than urban poverty, and why is it not changing faster?

There are at least five possible explanations for this suburban resilience:

• The first is that communities are able to absorb poverty that is relatively low and not spatially concentrated. Suburban municipalities, schools, and voluntary associations have enough capacity to cope with 11 percent poverty. It is in the city neighborhoods with poverty rates of 30 percent or higher that systems break down.

• The second is that this suburban poverty, which is led by immigrants, is somehow different. Not only do immigrant groups rely on networks of extended family, but also they do not experience as much racial discrimination as have the urban poor, particularly African Americans, historically.

• Another possibility is that accessibility – to jobs, services, and amenities – is not the type of challenge in suburbs that it is portrayed to be. Although transit services are inadequate, many low-income households rely on cars to manage their complex suburban lives. For the low-income, the issue is not how to get to social services once a month, but whether you can borrow a car from family every day.

• A fourth explanation is that many suburbs continue to exclude low-income households, whether through zoning or discouraging the construction of affordable housing.

• Or, these findings could just be an artifact of the analytic approach. The Brookings research designates almost all places not named in the Census official metropolitan area name as suburbs – meaning that cities like Gary, Indiana are combined with Gaithersburg, Maryland. This turns suburban poverty into a fuzzy concept.

In fact, recent work by Rolf Pendall, Margaret Weir, and Chris Narducci for the Building Resilient Regions network suggests the importance of narrowing focus. Comparing Chicago and Denver, they find that the suburbs best able to deal with poverty are larger jurisdictions where poverty is relatively dispersed. This raises the possibility that concentrated poverty remains the issue, not urban versus suburban.

It is not clear, then, that government policy is failing to provide a social safety net in the suburbs. To the extent that accessibility is an issue, we need to be sure that family networks – and their cars – are available. If the issue is subsistence – access to school lunch or health clinics – then the county level is probably the most efficient way to deliver services, as it does already. If the problem is not enough tax revenues to cover police and fire services, then perhaps we need to shift those to the county level too, as is already happening in many suburbs.

The biggest contribution of the Brookings research is actually in providing anti-poverty organizations with examples of innovative responses to poverty, including collaborating across suburb lines as in the West Cook County Housing Collaborative, combining money from different federal funding streams as in Houston’s Neighborhood Centers, and building suburban networks as in Montgomery County, Maryland.

We continue to view and analyze cities and suburbs as separate constructs, even though sociological research since Herbert Gans’ The Levittowners has shown that people in cities and suburbs are both, well, people, with similar values and needs. So perhaps what we need is a new pro-people strategy, not another anti-poverty strategy.

Cross-posted from MetroTrends Blog. Photoillustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute.  Source image from Flickr user Les Taylor (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)