Suburban Poverty a Growing, Under-recognized Problem

Lots of attention is paid to urban poor and their schools, but poverty in suburban areas is growing at a more rapid pace.

If asked about poverty, most would paint a moving picture of urban inner-city plight full of projects and drugs and gang problems, but the reality, according to Yahoo Finance, is quite different. The Brookings Institution analyzed the latest Census data and found that of the nearly one-third of the nation’s poor live in suburbs, and their numbers increased over 11% over the previous year.

Although nearly 13 million people who are below the poverty line live in the cities, their numbers are growing much slower than of those beyond the city limits. The number of urban poor grew by 5% from the year before and 23% since the last Census taken in the year 2000. Meanwhile, the number of people from the suburbs living in poverty is now nearly 30% greater than the last Census, mostly due to the two recessions and continuing nationwide problems with unemployment.

It is hard to put a face on the suburban poor. They range from immigrants who bypassed urban centers and settled in the suburbs, making ends meet via construction and domestic work, to those who moved out of the cities as part of their transition to the middle class only to see their income erode with the slowing GDP.

According to Time Magazine, suburbia has the highest poverty growth rate than any other residential setting. Moreover, the seeds for this growth in poverty were planted before the Great Recession.

A combination of factors including overall population growth, job decentralization, aging of housing, immigration, region-wide economic decline, and policies to promote mobility of low-income households led increasing shares of the poor to inhabit suburbs over the decade. From 2000 to 2010, the number of poor individuals in major-metro suburbs grew 53 percent, compared to 23 percent in cities.

One of the most difficult issues facing the suburban poor is securing government aid, a process made more difficult for those outside the city centers. Marcy Harris, who works for the Community Action Partnership of Suburban Hannepin in Minnesota, says that she often sees familiar faces at the local food bank: many who used to donate now come in as clients. Brookings’ Elizabeth Kneebone says that even people who donate to aid organizations often choose to direct their money to groups serving urban areas since so few realize that there are those in need of aid in their own communities.

“By and large, if you drive through the suburbs, it looks like the American dream is still healthy and real,” said Donna Cooper, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy group. “But behind closed doors, there are increasing numbers of people who don’t have jobs, their retirement nest eggs are gone and they can’t meet their mortgage payments.”

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