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Wrestling With Suburban Poverty

Elizabeth Kneebone's new Brookings report on the suburbanization of poverty is getting a lot of press in the blogosphere. Suburban poverty is an important, albeit extremely challenging, issue to decipher. Did middle class individuals in the suburbs become poorer over the past decade? Did poor people from the city move into the suburbs by their own will? Or was the a demographic swap where wealthy people pushed poorer people out of urban neighborhoods and into the suburbs? I think the answer literally depends on where you are. Each of these scenarios is plausible in one metro area or another, but not universally applicable as an explanation for the growth in suburban poverty.

But this isn't a post about the cause of suburban poverty. My question is how we, society, are going to deal with poverty as it, for lack of better words, sprawls out.

(from Flickr user Mark Strozier)

The suburbs in most, if not all, metro areas were built for a very specific purpose and to accommodate very specific groups of people. They were designed to be places where the middle and upper class would live. They were never intended to accommodate anyone in poverty. In most suburbs there is a strong bias toward single family homes. There are segregated zoning uses, which make it challenging to do nearly anything without access to a car. There are relatively small but homogeneous populations. Few suburbs are as diverse (either in terms of ethnicity or income) as the cities they surround. Yes, there are a handful of suburbs that are very 'urban' both in design and demographics, but these suburbs are the exception, not the rule.

The very fact that suburbs have historically been perceived as places where people could go to get away from poverty, blight, crime, and whatever other negative phenomenon characterize "the inner city" is what makes suburban poverty so challenging. Specifically, I think there are three issues that have to be dealt with.

Redistributions of Income
If society decides that it ought to provide services to its citizens, it needs to find some way to pay for them. In a city that has a population of diverse income groups, this isn't unreasonable to accomplish. The wealthiest individuals pay the most taxes, the poorest pay the fewest taxes. If the city wants to provide additional services to the poor, it bankrolls it with money it collects, more or less, from the wealthy.

Most suburbs don't have populations of diverse income groups; rather, they usually have a single, narrow income group. If enough citizens of a suburb live in poverty, the local government has little ability to collect revenue, and without revenue it has little ability to provide services. In a city, this can be overcome because different neighborhoods can cater to different groups; but suburbs often function as what would be equivalent of a single city neighborhood. If one neighborhood in a city falls on hard times, there's hope that it can be bailed out by a stronger neighborhood. This dymanic is absent in suburbs.

Insufficient Transportation Options
How many people in the suburbs have ever said they "need" to own a car just to go about their daily lives? I'm not convinced it's true in every instance, but there is no denying that many suburbs have been designed as car-centric places where it is assumed that its citizens will own and drive a car everywhere. This is a problem because if you're in poverty, a car is either something you don't have because you can't afford it, or you have but because it's very expensive, it makes it that much more difficult to escape poverty. A no-win situation.

Public transit in many suburban areas is simply impractical because of a lack of density, even if a significant proportion of the population uses it to get around.

Escalating Costs of Living
These problems get worse as energy prices increase. Not only does it cost more money to fill the tank of a car, for those who have one, but it costs more to heat large suburban homes. Further, high energy prices make the city more attractive to those who can afford it. Historically, when white-collar professionals lived in suburbs and commuted into the city, they still provided work opportunities for those living in the cities. The opportunities might have been service-sector work - cooking in restaurants or cleaning offices, for example - but it was something. When the roles reverse, and the people who would benefit most from those jobs have to commute in and out of the city, it creates a serious problem, even a question of whether or not such jobs are economically viable.

I'll save any solution ideas for another post, because there are frankly many different approaches that could be taken to this problem. Many of them will propose a sort of restructuring of local governments (to make suburbs behave more like cities) or a redesign of suburban areas (to make them less car-centric and biased against density). The bottom line is that if/when poverty becomes a big enough problem in suburban areas, something will have to change.


B. P. Beckley said…
Interesting topic.
I could see that it would also be very hard for suburban jurisdictions to build more multi family housing, because the remaining non-poor residents would consider it to be inviting the apocalypse to come sooner.

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