What Does Rising Poverty Mean For U.S. Metro Areas?

10.7.11 | The new poverty numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month were sobering. 2.6 million people fell into poverty in the United States last year. There are now 46.2 million people living below the poverty line, the highest number ever reported by the census.

The numbers put the struggles of low-income and working families into the spotlight with economists calling it a “lost decade” and a reality check for those of us who still think of America as a land of good and plenty.  If the trends continue, the young generation can no longer expect to be in better shape than their parents.

But what’s the effect on cities and metropolitan regions?

The Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone took a look at new data from the 2010 American Community Survey. They find increases in poverty and declines in income in cities across the country. From 2000 to 2010, poverty rose in 88 out of the 100 largest metro areas and incomes fell in 91 of those areas. By 2010, more than one in five city residents were poor and 11.4% of suburban residents lived below the poverty line.

Regions like Detroit and Grand Rapids that experienced a double hit  – with the loss of manufacturing jobs early in the decade and the recession in the later half — got hit the hardest, their analysis finds. Regions in the southern and western part of the country also got hit hard.

And the number of poor people in major metro suburbs grew by 53% compared to only 23% in cities. More of the nation’s poor population now live in the suburbs than in the cities.  In addition to economic factors Berbube and Kneebone also point to trends like overall population growth, immigration, job decentralization, and shifts in the location of affordable and subsidized housing as reasons for the continued shift.

The important question here, of course, is how will these cities respond. BRR researchers continue to study the effect of these trends in order to help point policymakers toward effective responses that will lead to economic resiliency and growth. Increasingly they are calling for regional solutions both in terms of governance and social service infrastructure.

As we’ve written about, despite our stereotypes about suburbs as places of opportunity, these communities often do not have the infrastructure to support their changing demographics.

Blogging at the Urban Institute’s Metrotrends last month, BRR researcher Rolf Pendall says that for some communities using the term “suburbanizing poverty” is “at least a little misleading.”

Most people wouldn’t have called a move to Gary, Hammond, Passaic, Paterson, or Newark “suburbanization” even in the 1950s—never mind today. These places have struggled with disinvestment, population flight, and neighborhood distress for decades. And LA’s rising poverty hot spots, though suburban in some respects, are really exurbs perched at the edge of the Mojave desert, without good mass transit and over an hour from the region’s major job centers.

Faced with increased demand and decreasing revenue, these communities, whatever one chooses to call them, very often don’t have the resources to help.  One survey, also from Brookings, found that 47% of suburban nonprofits reported a loss in a key revenue source in 2009.

The only real solution to poverty is, of course, jobs. And experts say a strengthened safety net can also help contribute to an economic recovery by maintaining the purchasing power of these families and helping to create jobs.

Yet services that can be crucial to finding and keeping a job like training, public transportation, day care, and affordable housing are often not available in the suburban communities where low-income families increasingly live.

In a Q&A on this blog, BRR Network Chair Margaret Weir talked about the effects of this weakened infrastructure on families:

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.

Weir and fellow BRR researcher Sarah Reckhow published a report over the summer about the role of philanthropy in strengthening the safety net for low-income residents in suburban communities. Read their full report here.

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