A New Image For The Suburbs

The New York Times reports on the huge growth in suburban poverty this week with a visit to suburban Cleveland where locales are struggling to provide services to their growing number of poor residents.

As we’ve written before, for the first time more than half of the metropolitan poor live in suburban areas, according to an analysis of census data by Elizabeth Kneebone at the Brookings Institution.

Increasingly counties and suburban municipalities are providing more services on ever-tighter budgets, as they face increasing cuts from the state.  Communities like one my grandparents moved to in the 1940s as a haven of safety and affordability, with good schools and a short commute, are no longer what they once were.

“The whole political class is just getting the memo that Ozzie and Harriet don’t live here anymore,” BRR Network Member Edward Hill told the Times.

BRR research has examined how these places are responding to their new economic reality and specifically how philanthropies and nonprofit groups are able to help out in places like suburban Cleveland.

In Parma Heights, a suburb of Cleveland the Times describes as “quiet” with “cul-de-sacs and clipped lawns,” social service agencies are struggling to keep up with a dramatic increases in demand. The local food pantry, which began serving a few dozen families a month five years ago, now helps 260 families each month. The Cleveland Food Bank, which services six counties, doubled its distribution between 2005 and 2010, according to the Times. Calls to the United Way’s social service hot line from suburban areas in northeast Ohio more than doubled from 2005 to 2010.

In a recent Brookings Institution report, BRR members Sarah Reckhow and Margaret Weir examine the thinning safety net for poor suburban residents like those in Parma Heights.

“[M]ost of the nonprofit social service agencies that play a leading role in providing services to low-income residents are located in cities, not suburbs,” Weir told BRR in a recent Q&A on this blog. “Therefore, suburbs face a new challenge with few established organizational resources.”

Since 2000, the Brookings analysis finds that poverty has increase by 5 million in the suburbs and the rise has been highest in communities hit hardest by the housing collapse.

As the Times reports, poverty has been growing in the suburbs for some time, but just in the past decade has grown much faster than the population. In places like the suburbs of Cuyahoga County or Prince Georges County, Maryland, which have been hit by the foreclosure crisis and the recession, middle-class families are being pulled into poverty. In Cleveland, almost 60% of the city’s poor now live in its suburbs, up from 46% in 2000.

Local government leaders say they need more resources to be able to help.

“You’re talking about governing systems that have never really done this before,” Edward FitzGerald the executive of Cuyahoga County told the Times.  FitzGerald argues that policy should reflect the population changes and aim resources to where they are most needed — to the county.

Weir makes a similar point in a recently published chapter “Creating Justice for the Poor in the New Metropolis.” Weir says that in some locations, the weak institutional structures (lack of clinics, social services) and locational disadvantages (being far from jobs) can produce what she calls “extrusion,” or “extreme disconnection from the rest of society” making poverty more intractable and less visible.

Weir says there is an important role for federal policy to play in helping build local capacity to respond to their changing demographics and in redistributing resources across metropolitan regions.She says that while local decisions are critical in shaping the structure of opportunity, federal policy plays a key role inn “setting the game” for local decisions. She stresses the need to focus on institutions as well as individuals and the role of federal policy in strengthening the voices of low-income Americans.

“Even for those who live closer to work opportunities, suburban residence is no guarantee of economic security or upward mobility,” she writes. “Recognition of these facts is a first step in designing policies and institutions that promote inclusion.”

Read the full story at The New York Times.

Photo by Tim.

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