The safety net is thin in suburbs despite growing poverty

7.25.11 |  Most Americans think of the inner city when they think of poverty. But today, the largest share of the American poor, nearly one-third, lives in the suburbs. This means that poverty is no longer simply an urban problem: it is a regional concern. Yet the suburbs are as yet often ill-equipped to address the needs of more vulnerable families, needs ranging from reliable and affordable transportation and housing, to job-training and preschools.

A recent Brookings Institution report by BRR members Sarah Reckhow and Margaret Weir documents philanthropy’s role in building a stronger suburban safety net for low-income suburban families. We sat down with the authors to discuss their report.

BRR: Poverty is often a challenge associated with cities. Why do you focus on suburban poverty?

Margaret Weir: We focus on the suburbs because they have much less experience and little infrastructure for assisting the poor. Suburban poverty has grown rapidly over the past two decades. By 2008, the number of poor people living in the suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas was greater than the number of poor people in the cities. Yet, most of the nonprofit social service agencies that play a leading role in providing services to low-income residents are located in cities, not suburbs. Therefore, suburbs face a new challenge with few established organizational resources.

BRR: How do the four metro regions you study – Chicago, Detroit, Denver, and Atlanta — differ when it comes to suburban poverty?

Margaret Weir: Suburban poverty grew at a much faster rate than urban poverty in three of these four regions. The region with the most dramatic contrast is Atlanta. The number of poor people living in primary cities in Atlanta remained statistically unchanged from 2000 to 2008, while the number of poor in Atlanta’s suburbs increased by more than 200,000. Atlanta now has the highest suburban poverty rate of the four regions. In Chicago, the number of poor in primary cities also held steady, while its suburbs saw the poor population increase by nearly 50 percent. In Detroit, the number of poor people rose in both primary cities and suburbs, and the increase in poverty in the suburbs was about five times greater than in the primary cities. Denver’s suburban poverty rate is the lowest of the four metro areas, and the number of poor living in its suburbs increased only slightly more than in primary cities.

BRR: How do these four regions differ in providing philanthropy to poor suburbs?

Margaret Weir: Though metropolitan Atlanta has the highest rate of suburban poverty among the regions studied, it has the lowest rate of suburban grant-making per poor person. Denver’s results are a mirror image of Atlanta’s, with the lowest poverty rate and highest suburban grant-making per poor person. Chicago and Denver fall in between these two poles.

Both Chicago and Denver have well-established patterns of promoting regional cooperation dating back to the 1980s and 1990s through organizations of metropolitan mayors, regional planning efforts, and collaboration with business leaders. The relatively recent efforts to promote regional ties in Atlanta may be one cause for the more limited development of philanthropy in the suburbs. Detroit, also has weak regional ties but its longer history of suburban poverty.

BRR: What does it mean to a low-income family living in the suburbs that there are few services for them? Can you give an example of what the gap feels like to a suburban family struggling to make ends meet?

Margaret Weir: For low-income families in the suburbs, difficulty in accessing services can mean that children go hungry, especially in periods between paychecks or when food stamps run out. For families who are experiencing sharp drops in income as a result of the recession, access to services can see them through a difficult period and help them get back on their feet more quickly. The lack of services may also mean delaying health care, which may require long trips into the city, especially to see a specialist. Access to services is particularly important in helping low-income people keep their jobs. Long trips for services or no help with sick children, for example, can make the difference between losing a job and keeping a job.

BRR: The report focuses on the role of philanthropy in building a stronger safety net. When I think of philanthropy, I think of Bill Gates or the United Way. Is that what you mean by philanthropy, and if so, what institutional role do philanthropists and foundations play in providing services for the poor?

Sarah Reckhow: Philanthropy includes big foundations that operate internationally, like the Gates Foundation. It also includes smaller foundations that focus on a particular region, such as the Chicago Community Trust. Philanthropy is particularly important in providing nonprofit organizations with funds to innovate and address new issues. But foundations sometimes also play a larger role in helping to knit together an entire region and to identify gaps in services. For example, foundations may use their broad connections with local groups to bring organizations together and encourage collaboration on new initiatives.

BRR: Why is there so little philanthropic investment in poor suburbs?

Sarah Reckhow: Although we found some efforts to increase philanthropic investment in poor suburbs, such as the South Suburban Coordinating Council outside of Chicago, we also learned that philanthropies have faced challenges in building new organizations and new networks in the suburbs. Compared with urban areas and better-off suburbs, poor suburbs often have fewer services provided by local governments and a weaker nonprofit sector. Philanthropists have struggled to find ways to provide effective assistance or establish a “middle ground” in places where local capacity and resources are severely limited.

BRR: Why is spearheading a regional effort to strengthen the safety net such a challenge?

Margaret Weir: Regional efforts are challenging because there is no regional government to help coordinate services. As a result, regional efforts require diverse nonprofit organizations, including foundations, to expand the scope of their activities. This can be quite difficult. It means building relationships among groups that have no history of cooperating with each other and who might also have different priorities. Regional efforts are also difficult because many urban service providers are already overwhelmed with demand for their services.

BRR: What are the most promising strategies that foundations have developed for addressing suburban poverty?

Sarah Reckhow: We focus on four key strategies of foundations, including—supporting existing regional organizations; creating new regional organizations; fostering regional collaborations and networks; and establishing new suburban community foundations. Among these four strategies, a few examples particularly stand out as promising efforts.

In Chicago, foundations were involved in the formation of a new unified regional planning agency, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). Unlike most Metropolitan Planning Organizations, CMAP — at the insistence of its board — included human services (now the Human and Community Development Committee) as one of its six working committees. The hope is that CMAP’s information about need and gaps in human services can eventually influence decisions about how and where to allocate resources for new services, such as preschool centers.

Another strategy is to encourage new regional collaborations. In Detroit, for example, foundations have had some success promoting new collaborations among existing organizations at a regional scale. In 2007, the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation brought together local organizations to explore the Center for Working Families concept, a national project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation designed to support financial stability for low-income families. This led to a new collaboration between the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and LISC Detroit to develop a regional network of Centers for Working Families. Five centers have been established so far in metropolitan Detroit.

BRR: What will happen to suburbs if they fail to address the needs of vulnerable families?

Margaret Weir: Suburbs are so diverse that they are likely to have different outcomes. Wealthier suburbs may end up with entrenched pockets of poverty in areas that are separate from the rest of the area. Less well-off suburbs may experience a more general decline as better-off residents move away. Some institutions, especially schools, in both kinds of suburbs may be particularly affected by the lack of services. Suburban schools are often the first to note growth of poverty, and they can wind up with a heavy burden of assisting poor children when other services are weak. For many schools, the extra load may strain resources and undermine educational outcomes for all children.

The full report, “Building a Stronger Regional Safety Net: Philanthropy’s Role,” was published July 21, 2011 by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Sarah Reckhow is assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University.
Margaret Weir is professor in the Department of Political Science and Department of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.

9.13.11: Update–More food for thought on this topic from BRR member Rolf Pendall in a column for MetroTrends.

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