Suburban Poverty Demands New Partnerships, Greater Scale

5.21.13 | As we near the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it’s worth a moment to consider just how effective that effort was, particularly against the backdrop of stalemate and pettiness that our current Congress offers. In 1964, when President Johnson launched the War on Poverty, 19% of country was in poverty. By end of decade six years later, a mere 72 months, that rate had dropped to 12%.

And yet, as Brookings scholars Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube argue in their new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” the approach that Johnson took will no longer work today. Too much has changed, and foremost among those changes is the massive shift of poverty to the suburbs.

As Kneebone told a morning crowd gathered for the book’s launch in Washington, DC, on May 20, “The landscape of poverty has changed,” but our perceptions and policies haven’t kept pace.

Since 2000, poverty has grown 64% in the suburbs. In Chicago’s suburbs, for example, poverty has grown by 99% in a decade. In Seattle between 2000 and 2011, the poor population in the suburbs grew by 79%. The suburbs are home to two-thirds of the area’s poor. In booming Houston, the poor population in the suburbs more than doubled in a decade.

As BRR’s Margaret Weir has documented, the suburbs are ill equipped to deal with this poverty. The suburbs, after all, were designed to be everything the city was not: wide open space, stand-alone homes, quiet. They were designed as bedroom communities, with two-car garages and no public transit except for a train directly to the downtown business district. The businesses that were nearby were clustered in an “office park” with a rolling hill, a pond, and a big parking lot.

Designed for prosperity—and quite often designed deliberately to keep the poor out—the suburbs do not have the municipal hospitals, the Head Start programs, the affordable housing options, the social services infrastructure to support a growing poor population.

“Today’s poverty is no less urgent than Johnson declared war on,” Luis Ubinas, president of the Ford Foundation, who himself grew up in poverty, told the gathering. “It is no less painful today than for those of us suffering it 50 years ago. Today it’s a different poverty. It’s an isolated poverty. That’s a harder problem—it’s less visible to us, we won’t run into it in our parks or on the sidewalk. We’ll drive past it on highways.”

“For decades the suburbs were where you found prosperity and the good life,” Strobe Talbott, president of Brookings Institution, told the audience. “But more poor people live in the suburbs than in the inner cities today.” And yet, “poverty policy is still harnessed to a bygone era.” This book, he said, updates that situation.

So what’s the solution for suburban poverty? In a word: partnerships. The country must fund programs more strategically and at a smarter scale—across boundaries and jurisdictions—if we are to address this new face of poverty. Jurisdictions must not compete for resources, but devise shared solutions. Suburban poverty is regional poverty. Chicago has more than 200 jurisdictions in its suburbs. Houston has 75 communities. Seattle has equally high numbers. And getting these jurisdictions to work together to achieve greater scale of impact is imperative.

For example, in Chicago, IFF is spearheading new forms of funding and leveraging public and private money to stretch limited funds. As IFF Chief Executive Officer Joe Neri

said, “We can’t finance what we want to do like we did before.” A three-legged stool— public, private, nonprofit—he said, is more sustainable

“Think comprehensively,” he said. “Be nimble with capital to make it happen but also be informed by facts to use scarce resources wisely.”

Organizations, he says, must get federal money into the hands of intermediaries that are accountable to local needs. IFF leverages $240 million for multiservice organizations across five states. They blend this financial capacity with nonprofit real estate development, policy expertise, and research to find effective, accountable solutions.

That reminds me of the latest issue of the “Community Development Investment Review” by the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco, “Pay for Success.”  The authors offer several examples of novel financing programs that are tied to performance, along with pros and cons of this “pay for success” approach overall.

In Houston, “Neighborhood Centers” blends more than 35 federal programs with state programs and private funding. Because of this scale, it can target its services accordingly to meet a broad array of need but yet be more efficient.

Groups can no longer be committed to one project, or one demographic, said Angela Blanchard, President and CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Inc. “They tend to organize and hang on to that. When things change, it’s hard to evolve.” Becoming evolutionary in a siloed world when every grant is written for one dimension, one problem is difficult. To be evolutionary, she said, “you have to milk every cow. You have to learn to work with all the siloed funding sources and policies and put everything together in a way that meets the people’s needs—it’s a bit of alchemy.”

There are a growing number of examples of these successful efforts, and the book launch is the kickoff to a yearlong tour of some of these new partnerships and this new form of scale. As Kneebone described it, the goal is to change the system so it works better for more people and places. To get the ball rolling, Brookings is offering a “metro opportunity challenge” to deploy resources toward what’s really working. “We want to catalyze the capacity of regions across the country, spark private investment and realign players.”

“We can’t wait for federal government to act. So we’ll highlight innovations across the country to show how to work in more collaborative, scaled ways. We can push state and federal legislators into the 21st century.”

The team has put together a website,, as a gathering place to find updates on the examples of collaboration, case studies, facts about suburban poverty, policy recommendations, information on what you can do, book information, and much more.


Read more:

The Suburbanization of Poverty in the San Francisco Bay Area

Public Transit Systems Don’t Always Connect Workers to Jobs

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