Concentrated poverty is increasingly a regional issue

suburban Aurora, IL, sees rising concentrated poverty

11.4.11 Concentrated poverty is on the rise in many parts of the country–particularly in the suburbs–and as a new report by the Brookings Institution says, its challenges of are becoming more regional in scope.

The report, by Elizabeth Kneebone, compares concentrated poverty (census tracts where at least 40% of the population live in poverty) from 2000 and a five-year average of 2005-2009. Essentially, what progress we made as a nation in the 1990s of “de-concentrating” poverty has been largely erased.

Bottom line: The number of Americans living in concentrated poverty rose by one-third from 2000 to 2005-09, or an additional 2.2 million people.

What’s interesting about this report is how much the story of poverty in America is becoming not a story of a large “underclass” living in high-rises, isolated and disconnected from the mainstream, as so many reporters and politicians liked to portray. Rather, concentrated poverty today is increasingly a story of the working class.

The share of those with a bachelor’s degree and living in concentrated poverty increased from 6.7% to 9.7%. Those with some college or an AA degree increased from 17.4% ro 20.5%. Likewise, the population that is white and living in concentrated poverty rose from 11.2% in 2000 to 16.5% in 2005-10. Finally, the population in extreme poverty was more likely to own their own homes.

The rise in concentrated poverty is also increasingly a suburban story. As the report finds, the population in extreme poverty neighborhoods rose more than twice as fast in the suburbs than in the cities during the time span. And the growth rate was fastest in smaller metro areas than larger.

“The number of extreme-poverty neighborhoods in suburban communities grew by 54% compared to 18% in cities,” Kneebone reports, “and the poor population living in these suburban neighborhoods rose by 41%–more than twice as fast as the 17% growth in cities.”

The suburbs that have seen such growth are not always the inner-ring of older suburbs either.

Mature suburbs–those that largely developed in the middle decades of the 20th century, in contrast to older “streetcar suburbs” bordering central cities—are home to more extreme poverty tract and poor population in those tracts than their more urbanized neighbors.

Some argue that being poor in the suburbs is better than being poor in inner-cities since people are closer to jobs, better housing, better schools, and other opportunities. However, as Kneebone notes, research has found that the suburban poor often end up in lower-income pockets with less access to jobs and other opportunities than their better off suburban neighbors. And, as we’ve written about in an earlier post and this Q&A, social services in the suburbs are lacking.

As Kneebone told NPR’s Marketplace program, ”The concern there is as these suburban clusters of poverty grow, that we’re creating communities that are walled off or isolated from opportunities like better jobs or better schools.”

That said, poor people in cities remain more than four times as likely to live in concentrated poverty as their suburban counterparts.

Concentrated poverty is also increasingly a Midwestern story, and in particular a Great Lakes metro area story (apparently Michigan and Ohio are midwestern in this report). Growing numbers in suburban neighborhoods in Youngstown, Toledo, Detroit, and Dayton are poor living in neighborhoods of extreme, concentrated poverty. The Midwest now sits in the top spot with 617 census tracts in extreme poverty– a 79% change since 2000. The South follows with 576 tracts and a 23% growth.

What this shifting demography of poverty suggests is that suburban and city governments should be working in coordinated fashion to fight poverty. Land use, zoning, economic development, and housing should all be on the table and approached in a coordinated way. Regional governance has had its challenges, with hard municipal boundaries and an unwillingness to cooperate across those lines, but if there ever was a time for a regional approach, it is now. Leaders must refocus on economic development that is well integrated across regions–and beyond state and municipal boundaries. Without such efforts, increasing numbers of families will be left behind.

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