LAMBERT: We Can’t Ignore Suburban Poverty

George Lambert
George Lambert

In their 2014 book “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube look at an issue that appears as incongruous as the title itself: a rising trend of rampant poverty in the suburbs around America’s cities.

Most astonishing is that there are now more poor Americans living in the suburbs than in cities, a disturbing fact that flies in the face of our assumptions about picket-fence enclaves versus gritty inner-cities.  It’s now the suburbs that are places with higher concentrations of low-income individuals and families, as well as struggling, working residents who are barely living from paycheck to paycheck.

“For decades, the poor population in America’s suburbs has grown faster than anywhere else in the country,” say Kneebone and Berube at their website created by Brookings Institution for the book. “During the 2000s, the number of poor people living in the suburbs grew by 64 percent — more than twice the growth rate in cities (29 percent). Today, more poor people live in the suburbs than in America’s big cities or rural areas. Suburbia is home to almost 16.4 million poor people, compared to 13.4 million in big cities and 7.3 million in rural areas. Throughout the 2000s, the suburban poor population grew significantly in 85 of the nation’s 95 largest metropolitan areas. Rising poverty has touched all kinds of suburbs—even places that once seemed immune to these challenges.”

We’re no stranger to this trend at the Greater Washington Urban League. In fact, we’ve been watching it with an increased sense of urgency for quite some time, particularly over the latter part of the nearly 80 years we’ve been in existence.  Back in 2010, Kneebone even captured much of what’s been happening in a major suburb of Washington, D.C., Prince George’s County, MD, in a revealing study of steadily rising poverty in the majority-Black jurisdiction. At that point of the study, “Prince George’s County saw the poor population increase slightly over the decade, while the number living under 200% of poverty grew by almost 8,000,” Kneebone pointed out. “Of DC’s suburban counties for which there was data in 2009, Prince George’s County was home to the second largest poor population after Montgomery County.”

Naturally, and tragically, it’s the rising cost of housing which keeps pushing residents deeper into the suburban rings of metropolitan centers.  At one point, nearly 50 years ago, we witnessed “white flight” or the very fast exodus of residential whites from America’s cities in a bid to shorten commutes, reach greener lawns and disassociate themselves from the discomfort of social disruptions and growing Black populations in urban locations.  Today, particularly in cities like Washington, D.C., there is the noticeable and systemic displacement of many low-income, working class and even middle class Black residents from those very neighborhoods that have become too expensive to live in.

That move to the suburbs, where housing is cheaper, is not so much by choice as it is by circumstance: with the median price of a house in the District of Columbia at more than $500,000 (that’s just the median), families in vulnerable communities of color are finding it more difficult to live in cities.

It’s also becoming difficult to live in suburbs, where foreclosure rates have been among the highest in the nation during the Great Recession.

This also becomes a pressing Catch-22 for historically disadvantaged populations in the Washington, D.C. region.  Living in the city could grant greater access to cultural and economic amenities, but it’s too expensive and economically unsustainable to maintain a home there.  Yet, moving out to the suburbs now presents a grim set of realities, especially for low-income residents.  In places like Prince George’s County, a low-income resident must have a car or they are economically out-of-luck. No car means extremely limited transportation options, particularly if you live outside the Beltway as opposed to within it.  Lack of mobility or lack of access to reliable transportation options means fewer job opportunities are available.  That dilemma is contributing to a rather untenable situation for suburban residents. That also presents challenges in terms of access to other resources, from schools to daycare to grocery stores.

Policymakers in the suburban edges must think creatively about how they can make their jurisdictions much more accessible and accommodating to the needs of vulnerable residents.  At the moment, area governments have been aggressive in implementing more effective foreclosure mitigation programs, an important tool to decrease poverty and to prevent a shrinking tax base.  But, not everyone in the suburbs is living in a single family home.  Area governments will need to collaborate on such issues as transportation, mobility and economic opportunity gaps in the suburbs.  Every challenge is linked in some way. Recognizing the full scope of those challenges is the big first step towards reversing the quiet, but dangerous, trend of suburban poverty.

Lambert is president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.

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