A new study of population and income trends has found that the poverty which has long been associated with inner cities, has now moved out to the suburbs along with everyone else. According to the Brookings Institution, the population of poor Americans who live in the suburbs grew 64 percent in the first decade of this century, while many major cities, including New York, saw their populations of poor people level off or even fall. While the more densely-packed cities still have have a higher poverty rate (as a percentage of the whole population), the total number of poor people living in suburbs now exceeds the total number living in urban areas, a reversal of nearly a century's worth of urban growth and decay.
There are several possible reasons for the dramatic shift: soaring real estate prices within some cities, combined with a housing bust further out; suburban sprawl pulling more low-wage workers out of downtown; and economic troubles that crushed much of the middle class toward the end of the last decade. But it's not just a local trend seen in a few places, as cities from Miami to San Francisco are noticing the changes. The only borough of New York City that saw an increase in its poor population was Staten Island.
It also isn't just a trivial issue for census takers and geography students. America has spent decades building up a support structure for the poor and that infrastructure is built almost entirely around inner cities. Shelters, transportation, health care, and other programs that are designed to help the underprivileged are concentrated in cities, and most suburban areas aren't equipped to deal with large numbers of people in need. The report by Brookings is actually meant to grapple with those questions and offers recommendations to help adjust to the changing reality of poverty. It's also another example of how tough economic times can reshape an entire country.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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