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Why Suburban Poverty Is Less Visible and More Insidious

Why Suburban Poverty Is Less Visible and More Insidious
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We've been talking today – both at Atlantic Cities and across town with our Washington, D.C. neighbors the Brookings Institution – about the suburbanization of poverty in America, a geographic trend particularly notable for two reasons: It confounds our long-entrenched stereotypes of suburbia as the home of the American dream, and it creates a dramatic mismatch between the social services infrastructure we began building during the War on Poverty and the poor people who now live nowhere near it.

As Luis Ubiñas, the president of the Ford Foundation, put it today at a Brookings event releasing a new book on the topic by Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone: "Today's poverty is no less painful. But it looks different."

Primarily, it looks different because so many of the people experiencing it don't live in densely populated inner-city neighborhoods, where they have, if nothing else, community. Poor people who live in high-rise apartments and dense urban blocks have neighbors who can pool childcare, or point each other to social services, or share rides to work. They have access to public transit, because transit follows density, too.

There is a land-use component to the shape of poverty (and the kinds of solutions we can build to address it): Poor people who are spread out from each other, and from the kinds of services that grow up to serve concentrated poverty, have the least resources of all. Neighborhood Centers, Inc., the largest non-profit in the state of Texas, serves 400,000 people every year in the Houston area, a region where even "urban" living looks suburban by standards elsewhere. More than 90 percent of all those people are auto-dependent, a fact that dramatically changes their relationship to each other, to services, to job opportunity. And this speaks to a point Ubiñas made today about how the new kind of poverty in America will be not only more difficult for governments and advocates to solve but also potentially even harder on the people who live it.

"That isolated poverty is a kind of hopeless poverty," Ubiñas said. It is also considerably less visible to the rest of us. "We won't run into it on the subway or in the park," he says. "We’ll drive past it on the highway."

Bill Shore, the founder of Share Our Strength, a non-profit fighting childhood hunger in the U.S., offered this related point about why poverty has been such an intractable problem in the U.S.: "Some problems affect people who are so vulnerable and so voiceless that there simply are no markets to solve them," he says. "There are no economic markets. There are no political markets."

What will this mean, then, for the suburban poor who find themselves vulnerable, voiceless, and also isolated? The below chart, from Berube and Kneebone's work, suggests their numbers will continue to rise:

Top image: trekandshoot/Shutterstock

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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