Local Governments’ Response to the Suburbanization of Poverty in Denver and Chicago

6.11.13 | Continuing our in-depth look at working papers presented by BRR Network colleagues at the closed-door symposium at the Urban Institute on May 31 (full list of papers here), we now turn to the question of suburban poverty and its effects on regional resilience, and vice versa: a resilient region’s response to poverty.

In “Governance and the Geography of Poverty: Why Does Suburbanization Matter?” Margaret Weir, of UC-Berkeley, and the Urban Institute’s Rolf Pendall and Chris Narducci compare how the Chicago and Denver metropolitan areas dealt with the expansion of poverty into suburbs—regions that culturally have long been seen as the polar opposite of “poor.”

(In my own experience covering Chicago’s northwest suburbs for a suburban daily newspaper, I and my colleagues encountered numerous residents and local officials—elected or otherwise—who flatly denied the existence of any poverty whatsoever because “that just doesn’t happen here.” This was by no means a blanket attitude; plenty of residents volunteered at local churches that offered space for overnight homeless shelters, and many officials recognized that poverty was indeed a growing problem in their communities. But pre-Great Recession, those folks were swimming against the tide.)

Starting with a general observation that “The resurgence of interest in regionalism in the 1990s emphasized governance and collaboration,” the authors note Chicago and Denver were among the most successful regions in creating those collaborations, but …

[T]he regionalist literature underestimated the need for material incentives to promote collaboration among weak local governments. We highlight the ways that relatively large and capable suburban governments in the Denver region have built regional approaches to poverty into a diverse set of policies, while the Chicago region struggles to find effective governmental collaborations through which to address problems confronted by the poor.

The authors trace the suburbanization of poverty as it accelerated through the “Aughts” not because poor families were “gentrified out”; rather, “suburban and central city poverty rates grow or fall together, in parallel with broader regional poverty-rate changes.” They also note that suburbs are generally less prepared to deal with poverty than cities because they don’t have the necessary social service advocacy infrastructure. Chicago and Denver were chosen for their similarities and differences because:

  • Their metro areas both saw poverty increase about 4.2 percent between 1999 and 2011.
  • Both “have also been noted for very significant changes in the poor populations of their central cities”.
  • Both “have garnered national attention for their growth in suburban poverty.”
  • Both have seen strong civic efforts at regional cooperation on issues from housing to transportation to open space.

“A key difference between these two metro areas, however, is the capacity and consolidation of local government, both of which are higher in Denver than in Chicago.” Denver has fewer suburbs, but more midsized ones; Chicago has more suburbs, but more small ones, thus a more fragmented local governance. They do note that the Chicago metro region spans three states, taking in the southeast corner of Wisconsin and the northwest corner of Indiana. Other differences: Denver’s suburbs have more employees per resident than Chicago’s, and Chicago has a quintet of older, larger, and once-industrial suburbs that were regional centers in their own right—Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, and Waukegan—but are now perhaps too far removed from the “action.”

“Together these factors suggest that regional resilience will require both a more robust state-level response than has materialized to date and a much more expansive cross-state engagement on recovery policies for the three-state Chicago region.”

Thus Narducci’s, Weir’s, and Pendall’s conclusions (neatly encapsulated in their paper’s sub-headlines): “Chicago: Worry about suburbanizing poverty because government capacity is low” and “Denver: Worry about poverty (period)”.

Regional resilience lies in local governance: Strong suburban governments in Denver make policy implementation much easier than in Chicago, where “fragmented and weak local governments … present a major obstacle even to secure funding to address growing poverty.”

Any national resilience strategy, the authors conclude, must take this spectrum of regional conditions into account.

Photo/ Eric Allix Rogers

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