The Suburbanization of American Poverty

Poverty is following the minivans and manicured lawn groomers into American suburbia. Suburban poverty rose 25 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to a new Brookings report, as poor suburban populations grew five times faster than their urban counterparts.


The notion that the poor are moving from cities to suburbs and the wealthy from suburbs to cities is not new. The Atlantic raised the specter of "suburban slums" in 2008 and Richard Florida regularly theorizes on the socioeconomic evolution of cities and suburbs. These new numbers, however, provide data to back up the trend.

Through the course of the decade, Midwestern poverty, in both cities and suburbs, has spiked the most. Not surprisingly, metropolitan auto hubs like Youngstown and Detroit were some of the worst off areas with respective poverty rates of 33.5 and 30.7 percent.

During the "Great Recession" of 2007-2008, the surburbs took the hardest hit in a country whose poor population increased by more than one million, or 3 percent. A primary culprit was that suburban jobs, especially in manufacturing and construction, have been decimated while city jobs have fared relatively better.

Why is this happening? Maybe it's simply because both rich and poor Americans are looking to flee the cramped cities. Christopher Leinberger has described homeowners' increasing desire for "the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods," a dynamic that makes it more difficult for lower-income residents to stay in gentrifying urban centers. On a slightly different note, Hanna Rosin has investigated how Hope VI housing vouchers have relocated much of America's poor population from inner cities to outer suburbs.

Whatever the cause, Americans may have to get used to the prospect of poor, jobless suburbs that could be just as intractable as the bombed-out inner cities ever were.


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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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