Poverty sprawl

More poor now live outside urban centers

INNER CITY SLUMS along with isolated rural outposts, have long defined our concept of poverty in America. Whether it is endless blocks of urban deprivation or a dilapidated house with a sagging porch in a remote corner of countryside, this is what forms our picture of poverty. Lying between the two is suburban America, the vast and growing land of well-kept homes and lush lawns that is the mainstay of the country’s middle class. But a new book says poverty is now making its way to suburbia in a big way.

Poverty grew during the 2000s in both cities and suburbs, write Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. But they say that growth was much more pronounced in suburbia, where the number of poor people rose by 64 percent, more than double the 29 percent increase seen in urban America. The increase in suburban poverty is such that more poor people today live outside big-city America (16.4 million) than inside it (13.4 million), according to Berube and Kneebone, researchers at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

They point to several factors driving the suburbanization of poverty, including shifts in the location of lower-wage jobs and affordable housing, and new patterns in where immigrants settle when they arrive here. The growth of suburban poverty, say Berube and Kneebone, calls for new approaches to the policies and programs that serve the poor. The new approaches include delivering programs efficiently at the regional level as well as infrastructure investment in mass transit, which is crucial for an increasingly suburbanized population to access services and the employment and training that can help them climb out of poverty.

Joe Kreisberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, is skeptical of the idea that poverty is soaring in places conventionally understood to be Boston suburbs. The Brookings report considers as suburbs all the communities of less than 100,000 residents that surround major cities such as Boston. “It is a serious mistake to conflate truly suburban communities like Lincoln and Westwood with smaller urban cities like Lynn, Brockton, and Revere because they face different challenges, have different resources, and need different solutions,” Kreisberg wrote following release of the Brookings report. But he nonetheless agreed with Berube and Kneebone that new collaborative, regional approaches to poverty are part of the solution, and he expressed hope that by making it clear that poverty is not just an urban problem, their report might generate more attention to poverty and ways to address it.

To try to understand better this shifting geography of poverty, I spoke by phone with Berube from his office in Washington. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.


COMMONWEALTH: The image the term “suburb” conjures up in people’s minds is very different from the emerging new reality that you and Elizabeth Kneebone spotlight in your book.

 ALAN BERUBE: Suburbs in America were in part the reaction to the problems of poverty in cities. And so it’s a little bit of a man-bites-dog story to see that today the majority of poor people in metropolitan areas actually live in suburban communities. Americans for some time had a fixed notion of what suburbia is that’s rooted in a 1950s or 1960s “Ozzie and Harriet” pictorial. It’s a bit of a rude awakening to realize that many of the same economic and social challenges that have long affected inner cities can actually be found in greater number in suburbs.

CW: And your finding is that this has really accelerated over the last dozen years or so?

BERUBE: Yeah, and it’s a bit of an interesting story how we came to this subject in the first place. I studied and got into urban policy because of the problems of the urban poor and what I thought was society’s responsibility to address those. In the course of examining trends in urban and metropolitan poverty over the 2000s, Elizabeth and I just ran across this quirky finding that, it seemed at least by 2005, there were more people under the poverty line in these metropolitan areas outside of cities than inside. By the end of the decade it was clear that the Great Recession had dramatically accelerated the movement of poverty to suburbs.

CW: And you talk about how those more recent downturns have accelerated it, but you also point out that this has not been entirely driven by the recent recession. There were some other things in motion already. What were these precursors?

BERUBE: It was a longstanding combination of the movement of population and jobs to suburbs, and especially jobs in sectors that pay lower wages, like retail and hospitality.

CW: So people followed the jobs?

BERUBE: Yes, and as people follow jobs, at some point people need to live near their jobs. Maybe those jobs are in the outer suburbs, but rather than living in the city they’re living in the inner suburbs just to gain some proximity to employment opportunities. The aging of suburbia is also causing there to be more affordable housing opportunity in suburbs, as are some policy changes like the introduction of housing vouchers and the enforcement of fair housing laws, which helped to open up suburban housing opportunities for low-income families. New policies have very intentionally lowered the barriers to the suburbanization of poverty. I think that’s the right thrust and a well-intentioned move. A third factor, which is bound up in the population and job shifts and affordable housing, is the greater movement of immigrants into suburban communities—immigrants who used to settle in central city neighborhoods, those portal communities, including in Greater Boston and suburban communities.

CW: So you’re saying that immigrants who would have once always had the urban center as their initial landing spot are skipping that step and going directly to their suburbs?

BERUBE: Yeah, suburbs are becoming the first stop for new immigrants to America, rather than the second or third stop after they’ve graduated from central city neighborhoods.

CW: There are two ways, I guess, that any region would see an increase in the number of poor people: Poorer people moving there and people who are already there becoming poor, falling down the economic ladder. How do those two ways of landing in poverty figure in the patterns you’ve seen?

BERUBE: There’s a structural component to the suburbanization of poverty and a cyclical component, too. The structural component is really the combination of factors like population and job change in suburbs, affordable housing increasing, and then immigration moving to suburbia. The cyclical component is, especially over the last decade, what’s happened to economic opportunities for middle-income families, middle-skilled workers, who in America today are largely suburban, and so the impacts and the poverty that resulted are more a suburban phenomenon than an urban phenomenon. You think here about factors like the decline of manufacturing in America. That’s actually been a long-running trend, but especially pronounced in the 2000s. That’s a suburban industry, that’s a suburban workforce, those are suburban families who are most affected by the downward mobility that’s ending up in the statistics of suburban poverty.

CW: Our image of factory work, if you go back 100 years, would have been Boston or the smaller mill cities in Massachusetts.

BERUBE: I grew up in Worcester County. Manufacturing jobs are not in downtown Worcester. They’re not even really any longer in downtown Fitchburg or Leominster or some of the older cities. They’re really scattered in the small cities and towns throughout the county, off of highways, outside of downtown areas, in industrial parks. These are really suburban places and suburban industry. So when you have plant closures and you have layoffs, those are suburban communities that are being affected.

CW: Can you talk a little bit about why this growth in suburban poverty is really significant? Some of the people who reacted to your report have been a little glib in saying, well, of course there are a lot more poor people in the suburbs—there are just a lot more people in the suburbs. It’s where US metropolitan areas have really grown since World War II. I’m sure you’re familiar with these critics, starting with the leading champion of suburban America, Joel Kotkin, who essentially says this is much ado about not very much.

BERUBE: I think some of the reaction here has misinterpreted this research as being us taking it out on suburbs and cheerleading for cities, saying, gosh, suburbs are not so great, they’ve got a lot of poverty, cities aren’t that bad.

CW: Kotkin certainly does suggest that this is driven by an agenda. He tweaks Brookings, calling it “the Vatican for anti-suburban theology.”

BERUBE: That has nothing to do with why we got into this issue in the first place. We think it’s important because there are a lot of families now who are in suburban communities, who are struggling to get by, and there is little to no infrastructure to help them get by, or get ahead and connect to services and supports and economic opportunities, because we never built it. We’ve been tethered to a model of alleviating poverty that grew out of an era of community empowerment and neighborhood-based solutions. Model Cities was the name of the hallmark program. I don’t want a Model Suburbs program, I don’t want a suburban poverty solution. I don’t think we need any of that. And, frankly, I don’t think it’s a model that’s worked all that well for inner-city communities, either. I think they’re better off than they might have been, but I don’t think we’ve gotten anywhere close to solving the problems of these communities with the toolkit that we have thus far. So from our perspective, what we need are models that work at the scale of the economy and the scale of the issue, which is more or less a regional one in most metropolitan areas.

 CW: As you write, a couple of the main data points are that there are more people living in poverty in suburbs than in cities. It certainly is somewhat just a consequence of the population growth in those areas. The poverty rate itself, I think, is roughly half what it is in the urban centers. But it’s still quite a bit higher than it had been.

BERUBE: That’s right. Poverty rates are up everywhere over the last decade, a little bit more in suburbs than in cities. The share of the population in poverty in suburbs is still lower. I would just point out, though, that suburbs are a big amalgam. To call them all by one name really doesn’t do justice to the diversity of these places. For every Weston, there is a Revere. These places come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. Many of them look more like cities from a physical standpoint than they do suburbs. And poverty rates aside, the fact of the matter is there are more people in those kinds of communities who have the challenges and needs that accompany poverty than there are in cities today. So the question is, are we going to ignore that and hope for the best, or are we going to try to adapt the systems we have for today’s realities?

CW: And what are the consequences for those places and people living there—the suburban areas that have seen this growth in poverty?

BERUBE: We see a number of them, and they come in different magnitudes depending on where you are in the country. A lot of it in many suburbs comes down to isolation. It’s isolation from employment opportunity because it’s often the case that where poverty is growing in suburbia is often on the other side of the region from where job growth is occurring. So in some cases, that’s actually exacerbating the spatial mismatch between low-income households and jobs.

CW: What do you mean by “on the other side”?

BERUBE: Most of the employment, say, in Greater Boston, moves west. It’s moved west first to 128, then 495, it’s probably even west of that now. But the poverty has tended to move north of the city and then south of the city, and not really out toward the major employment growth corridors. In Washington, it’s an east-west divide. Most of the poverty has moved to the east of the region in Prince Georges County, Maryland; most of the employment growth is occurring west in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Fairfax County, Virginia. Housing prices and affordable housing reflect the direction of the economy, too, so where the economy heads in one direction, the affordable housing is going to sort of head in the other direction. So isolation from employment opportunity, isolation from critical supports and services. There are no community-based nonprofits providing services in many suburban communities. There’s no municipal infrastructure to assist low-income families like there is in cities. So getting nutrition benefits for kids or for pregnant women has been an all-day affair if your only option is to take a bus ride downtown to the welfare office to gain access to the stuff. And then, we see social isolation. Concentrated poverty in cities has many, many ills. One small silver lining to it is that there is a social network that surrounds those families, that informs them of key programs and services, helps people get by if they need a ride somewhere. If they need a little bit of money to keep the lights on, they can find it among friends and family. It’s just much more difficult for low-income families in suburbia to do that, and there’s greater stigma attached to poverty in suburbia. We heard lots of stories from the communities we visited. When people finally present themselves at a social service agency, they often have many, many problems and barriers to stability, because they wait so long to do it. So rather than coming in when they’re having trouble putting food on the table, or need to sign-up for food stamps or SNAP, they show up saying it’s that, plus my car doesn’t work, plus I lost my job, plus my kid’s got a serious issue at school. It’s only when they really reach a crisis moment that they actually seek help because of the stigma associated with it in these communities.

CW: You point to social networks in inner cities as perhaps the one silver lining to concentrated poverty. We hear much more about the compounding effect of really concentrated poverty in urban areas, which might make you think that it would be better to be poor in the suburbs. Suburbs certainly have less concentration of poverty and all the problems associated with it, so people are in safer neighborhoods and may have access to better schools.

BERUBE: Is it better to be poor in the suburbs than the city? It depends. It depends what kind of suburb you’re in. Whether you’re in a suburb that provides decent access to employment and transportation and good quality schools for kids and a safe neighborhood, or are you in a place that’s isolated from those things, where the schools really aren’t performing any better than those that you’d find in inner cities, that are beginning to exhibit some of the same degradation and public safety issues that many communities face. I think the policy shift to deconcentrating poverty is the right one. I think we have lacked focus and intentionality about what’s the best way to do that that provides low-income families in suburbs a real leg up.

CW: Are there differences in suburban poverty across the metropolitan areas in the US depending on how well the core city is doing? I’m thinking about cities that are really thriving, and Boston certainly would be in that category, and I think Washington, DC, as well. Where housing prices have gone up, there’s renewed interest among the middle class and professionals in living in the city. Is that a factor here in terms of driving poor people out of cities, so that we are starting to see something that’s a little like the Paris banlieues, where lower-wage workers live more cheaply on the outskirts and have to commute in to the expensive city to work?

BERUBE: I think so-called gentrification is an important factor in the suburbanization of poverty in some US regions, among them Boston, Washington, DC, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, where there’s just been a renewed popularity of city living among middle and upper classes. In selected communities that has led to the outmigration of poor families because of affordable housing pressures. It’s also just changing more generally the distribution of affordable housing within those metropolitan areas so that new households that are forming, that are lower income, who might have once ended up in a city neighborhood, are remaining in a suburban community instead.

CW: Can you talk a little about how the Boston region fits within the national pattern? When I’ve seen listed the top 10 regions for suburban poverty, it doesn’t figure in that list.

BERUBE: I think in many ways Boston is the average US metropolitan area when it comes to this trend. Over the last decade, the growth of poor in the suburbs has outpaced that in the cities of Boston and Cambridge by about 10 percentage points, so it’s 34 versus 24 percent growth. The majority of the region’s poor live in suburbs. They have for some time. By 2011, the suburbs contained about 69 percent of the region’s poor, and yet the poverty rate in the core cities still outstrips that in the rest of the metropolitan area: 22 percent in Boston and Cambridge versus 9 percent in the rest of the region.

CW: The thing that complicates this picture, however, is the fact that, unlike places like Phoenix, where the suburbs have mostly sprawled out since World War II, here you include as suburbs some of our Gateway Cities, which have been around for well over 100 years. Lawrence and Haver¬hill and places like that aren’t really anybody’s idea of a suburb. And some of these have long been places with pretty high poverty, so they’re not part of a new trend in that way.

BERUBE: We would definitely acknowledge that 50 years ago these were urban communities, they were big employment centers in the region, and they really acted as cities. I think the reality today is a changing definition of what a suburb is. These are not major employment centers for the region any more. They have the problems of poverty and underemployment. Those places are satellites in a regional labor market. Most of the people who live in Lawrence who work, don’t work in Lawrence. Same for Haverhill. Same for Brockton. Physically, they don’t look like suburbs, but economically they’re like a lot of other [suburban] communities.

CW: So they essentially are kind of bedroom communities even if that term would seem odd when attached to them?

BERUBE: That term calls to mind a certain kind of place but, when it comes to commuting patterns, they’re like a lot of other suburbs in the region.

CW: There are some places that fit more of the classical definition of suburbs in the Boston area and have higher poverty rates. Randolph is the community that is at the top of the list in your data in terms of the percentage change in poverty. It has more than doubled during the 10-year period of your study. Then there are other places that I noticed, like Malden, which is more like an inner-ring suburb. It’s a place that’s close to Boston that has seen a lot of increase in poverty and is grappling with a lot of the problems of poverty that it hasn’t dealt with before.

BERUBE: Ten or 20 years ago you’d have said, that’s a Quincy problem or that’s a Revere problem or an Everett problem. But you just see over the course of time these “problems,” so to speak, they’re tending to migrate out. What happened to cities like Boston 40 or 50 years ago is now happening to their inner-ring suburbs, and then the next ring of suburbs after that. So I think we’re just trying to send a shot across the bow here that says, if you keep this up, eventually this is getting to Tewksbury, it’s getting to Sharon, and unless you put systems and structures in place that respond to the changes in these communities, and the changing needs of their families in a more regional manner, we’re just going to repeat the mistakes of the past over again.

CW: So what are the strategies and approaches that you and Elizabeth think we ought to be thinking about in light of these trends?

BERUBE: One principle is just thinking and acting at scale, which means putting our resources behind organizations that can do more than one thing in more than one place at the same time. And that’s not often how we approach poverty alleviation in place. We fund neighborhood-based, highly-specialized organizations, but those kinds of organizations are not well equipped to deal with the multidimensional problems that face low-income families, and the multi-jurisdictional nature of poverty is a structural feature of the economy that presents itself in all types of different communities across the region.

CW: What would that mean to approach it in a more unified way that cuts across these different approaches and is less fragmented?

BERUBE: We hold up one model in the book from Houston, a place that probably doesn’t analogize all that well to the Boston region, but it’s a place where, just over the last decade, a majority of the poor are now in suburbs. A large number of the social services that the city of Houston and Harris County deliver are delivered through one organization, called Neighborhood Centers. It’s present at upwards of 60 different sites across the whole Houston metro area, and it handles upwards of 35 different federal funding streams from 10 different agencies. It’s the largest nonprofit in Texas. Because they are acting at scale, they are able to make limited dollars go further, they gain efficiency from doing that, they gain the ability to serve different communities and serve different families with the right mix of programs and services, rather than just assuming that folks need one thing or two things. And they can just be more professional in the way that they do it, because they’re so big, because they can build the infrastructure in terms of systems, and human resources, and data, and information. It’s just a better quality of service delivery that you’re going to get than if you divide this up among 10 or 20 different agencies.

CW: Transportation is one of the issues that you identify as one of the challenges that this growing suburbanization of poverty raises. As part of all of this, do you feel like grappling with a need for better transportation planning or, in particular, regional mass transit is one thing we need to be doing?

BERUBE: In a lot of regions I think that’s a critical issue facing lower-income suburban communities. I would acknowledge the fact that most poor people, whether they live in cities or live in suburbs, especially those in suburbs, if they work, they use a car to get to work. That’s the reality for most low-income families. However, the cars that they have are often highly unreliable, they cost too much. So it should be a public policy priority to give suburban families, especially low-income families, more choices and options in transportation, and mass transit must be part of that. A lot of these suburban communities do have some form of transit. They don’t all have a transit line like the Orange Line. But they have bus service of some sort. But that service tends to be infrequent, goes in the hub-and-spoke pattern. It will take them in to the urban core and back out again, but it doesn’t link them from suburb to suburb, which is really where the employment opportunities are. So the number of jobs that they can actually get to in a reasonable amount of time from a suburban community can be quite low. So I think folding transportation into planning, not just for reducing gridlock or carbon emissions or for economic development purposes, but also for ensuring that folks who really need transit can get it and get the jobs, has to be a key priority.

CW: Talk a little about the particular idea that you tee up for how we might go at this nationally. You’ve proposed the idea of a model program that has to do with taking a chunk of the federal money that’s now spent dealing with poverty and making it available in a competitive process that tries to draw out the best ideas.

BERUBE: We call this idea the Metro Opportunity Challenge, which would really be designed as a challenge grant to states, which would support regional strategies to enhance access to opportunity for both urban and suburban low-income families. We propose using 5 percent, or about $4 billion, of the $82 billion in annual federal spending on anti-poverty efforts. The dollars would be focused on funding what we call regional quarterbacks, scaled organizations that work at the regional or at least at the sub-regional level on multiple issues affecting families across city and suburban lines. That could be access to affordable housing in communities with better schools or transit links. It could fund an organization that would actually spend all the money that a state and the federal government spend on affordable housing in ways that help people to access higher-opportunity communities that give them those safer neighborhoods, those better schools, those better transportation connections to work. We don’t deploy resources in that kind of flexible way right now. You get this kind of funding stream to build to this kind of affordable housing. You get that funding stream to build a different kind of affordable housing. Then, the transportation stuff comes over here and the school stuff comes over there. There’s no ability for communities and regions to pull this stuff together in the service of a larger vision for what low-income families need to succeed no matter where they are. So in a way it’s trying to stimulate more of a bottom-up, but not neighborhood-up, regional response to the issues affecting low-income families. There’s a little bit of recent movement in this direction from the federal government, something called the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which supported planning exercises for regions trying to better link up transit and housing in the service of reducing carbon footprints in regions, enhancing access to employment. This would be something that would be a more robust version of that and more squarely focused on improving opportunities for low-income families and communities.

CW: You’ve said there is an analogy here to the Race to the Top program that the federal Department of Education launched a couple of years ago to try to drive reform in school districts through competitive grants.

BERUBE: Right. In addition to scale, another key principle that we hold up for the new agenda is paying for success, putting dollars behind strategies that leverage other resources and that really focus on a small number of key goals, rather than a large number of less meaningful outputs. Rather than how many families are you going to serve, and how many leaflets are you going to distribute, are you really moving the dial on the quality of schools that low-income kids are attending? Are you really improving geographic access to employment? Are you really improving access to transit? Are you really doing the small number of things that we know can drive the biggest change in the life changes and outcomes for low-income families?

 CW: Is the challenge you’re trying to address to do a better job of managing poverty, or is it also to do a better job of moving people out of poverty?

BERUBE: It’s a great question. I think there are certain things that we have to do that are really just about making up the difference between wages and prices for low-income families. It doesn’t totally matter where you live for that stuff. It means supporting nutrition assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit and other wage subsidies, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, so that everyone has access to subsidized health insurance. Those are the basics. One reason that we think that you should operate the Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge through states is that, in the end, those are mostly state responsibilities to improve access to those low-income programs. So you have to buy the reforms that are necessary to make sure those services are available to people no matter where they live, that you’re using technology and distributed service delivery to reach families, whether they’re in cities or in suburbs. Above and beyond that, there are things that we have to do to address the specific challenges and market failures that exist in both cities and in suburbs, and either move folks to where opportunity is or bring opportunity to where they are. So that’s really what the Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge is about, taking those more place-based elements of the current system and kind of reforming that from the inside out by putting our muscle behind successful models that can act at the regional scale to address those place-based challenges.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

CW: But is the ultimate goal just matching the need with the services or is there also an element of looking at ways to more effectively help people climb out of poverty? The war on poverty was launched 50 years ago—but not with any sense that there’s ever an end to it.

BERUBE: I don’t think it’s what [President] Johnson intended when he launched it, but a lot of the war on poverty over time got morphed into building affordable housing in low-income communities as the single best strategy for alleviating poverty. I think most people who work on poverty know that’s not true. The best anti-poverty strategy is a job. So whatever we can do to improve access to employment, improve access to the skills that kids and adults need to gain employment, and then provide them with the sorts of stable communities that we know are essential for preserving family stability and maintaining employment—those are the things that matter most. Reframing at least a portion of the war on poverty in a kind of a regional direction would enhance that focus. In the end, regions are economies, so putting resources in the hands of regions can help them focus on real economic solutions to poverty.