Russell Sage's New Book: More Poor Live in Suburbs than Cities
The suburbs are no longer the alcove of the middle class and affluent—they are home to millions of America’s invisible poor.
That’s the provocative argument of the Russell Sage Foundation’s forthcoming book Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty. Written by Brookings Institution political scientist and urban studies expert Scott W. Allard, the book finds that even while suburban poverty has risen sharply—the number of suburban residents living in high-poverty areas tripled in the last twenty-five years —policymakers, philanthropists, academics, and the general public remain largely oblivious to the plight of the 17 million people living in poverty in America’s suburbs.
In particular, Allard provides new findings on how the suburban safety net and social service programs have failed to keep pace with rising need. As Allard shows, the very invisibility of suburban poverty in the public imagination has led to a crisis on the edge of America’s cities—not just in one region, or in older suburbs, but across the suburban landscape of the entire country. And it will take the cooperation of local, state, and federal governments with the philanthropic sector to fix it.
Key findings and themes from the book include:
Suburban poverty is growing faster than urban poverty, as poor people move to the suburbs, and people in the suburbs get poorer. Millions more people are living in deep poverty in the suburbs today than a decade ago.
The suburban safety net is weaker than the urban safety net, due to less professionalized suburban bureaucracies, competitive incentives for suburbs to attract more businesses and less low-income residents, and dependency on block-granted federal programs like TANF that have failed to keep pace with need. For example, between 2000 and 2010 suburban poverty grew by more than 25%, but the number of suburban TANF recipients decreased by nearly 17%.
Perceptions of the suburbs are racially coded—because many people perceive the suburbs as predominantly white, they assume that they are largely middle class or wealthy.
Philanthropists largely ignore the suburbs, leaving local social services without the funding needed to serve a growing population in poverty. Per low-income person, suburban counties spend roughly 10 cents on the dollar for nonprofit human services compared to urban counties.
Suburban poverty isn’t only in inner-ring suburbs—roughly two-thirds of poor suburbanites live in communities built after 1970. And poverty is growing fastest in suburbs built after 1990.
Policy solutions will need to address suburban and urban poverty together, including expanding federal safety net programs like SNAP and the EITC, promoting local government cooperation rather than competition, and cultivating a new generation of local leaders and non-profit organizations committed to tackling suburban poverty.
Allard takes a macro look at suburban poverty in America while also looking closely at the situation on the ground in the suburbs of Chicago, D.C., and Los Angeles.