The Rapid Growth of the Suburban Poor
The release of local poverty data from the 2010 American Community Survey this week delivered bleak news to communities across the country, bringing into focus the deepening impacts of an economically turbulent decade that began and ended in recession.
In the ten years that followed the economic high-water mark captured by the 2000 Census, poverty rates rose in 88 of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. These increases were felt across cities and suburbs alike as their poverty rates grew by roughly equal degrees—3.0 percentage points in major metro-cities compared to 2.9 percentage points in the surrounding suburbs—though city poverty rates remained much higher than in suburbs. By 2010 more than one in five city residents was poor (20.9 percent), while 11.4 percent of suburbanites lived below the federal poverty level.
The metro areas hit hardest by rising poverty reveal the regional impacts of the economic gyrations of the 2000s. Several manufacturing-oriented metro areas top the list for both city and suburban poverty rate increases over the decade, including Grand Rapids, Dayton, and Detroit. These places felt the effects of the first downturn of the decade in their loss of manufacturing jobs, and only saw the situation worsen with the onset of the second, more severe recession. Other regions that experienced large increases in city poverty (like Ogden, Boise, and Palm Bay), and suburban poverty (like Cape Coral, Lakeland, and Jacksonville), weathered the first half of the decade with stable poverty numbers, but were on the front lines of the housing-related bust that brought on the Great Recession.
Significantly, the 2000s also marked a turning point in the geography of American poverty. The 2010 data confirm that poor populations continued their decade-long shift toward suburban areas. From 2000 to 2010, the number of poor people in major-metro suburbs grew 53 percent (5.3 million people), compared to 23 percent in cities (2.4 million people). By 2010, suburbs were home to one-third of the nation’s poor population—outranking cities (27.5 percent), small metro areas (20.5 percent), and non-metropolitan communities (18.7 percent).
In addition to regional economic influences, a combination of factors contributed to the swelling of the suburban poor ranks over the decade, including overall population growth, immigration, job decentralization (particularly among low- and middle-skill industries like construction, retail, and manufacturing), aging of housing, and shifts in the location of affordable and subsidized housing. Between 2000 and 2010, 85 of the nation’s largest metro areas experienced a significant increase in their suburban poor population, and in 16 metro areas, including Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, the suburban poor population more than doubled during that time. The recession merely served to accelerate the trend, as suburbs added 3.4 million poor from 2007 to 2010—1.4 million more poor individuals than cities.
The magnitude and pace of growth in the suburban poor population over the past decade caught many communities unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the growing need. In many suburbs, the safety net is patchy and stretched thin to begin with. The suburban social services infrastructure is not as developed or robust as in urban centers with a longer track record of addressing the challenges of poverty, nor is it as funded. And as governments continue to tighten their belts and philanthropic resources dwindle, safety net service providers are increasingly asked to do much more with significantly less.
These worrisome trends seem sure to continue given the meager job growth and persistent unemployment over the past year. Though metro areas will chart distinct trajectories amid a sluggish national recovery, whether they will manage to turn the tide on these trends depends on their ability to grow in ways that actually benefit low- to middle-income families. And knowing that things are likely to get worse before they get better, meeting the needs of a growing low-income population will increasingly depend on whether metro areas can adapt a traditionally city-focused infrastructure for helping the poor to the reality of a region-wide challenges.