Is Suburbia Now Worse Off Than the Inner-City?


Lakewood, Ohio is the idyllic picture of the American suburb: cars line the neighborhood streets where families reside in Tudor homes. Nearby in the city’s Gold Coast, high rise apartments stretch over Lake Erie. But as of 2010, more than 8% of Lakewood’s workforce was unemployed. Forty-six percent of students at Lakewood High School participate in a free or reduced lunch program, up from 9% just ten years earlier. But Lakewood is not simply some random town that has fallen on hard times — it is only one example of a harsh reality for cities across the entire country: poverty is coming to the suburbs. 

For the majority of the 20th century, poverty has always been associated with urban populations, while the suburbs have been viewed as a place of nearly utopian prosperity: secure neighborhoods, thriving schools, and jobs for everyone. Increasingly though, this has not been the case. Suburban poverty levels have risen significantly over the past ten years, and now more poor people live in suburbs (16.4 million) than in urban cities (13.4 million). Every year, more and more “Lakewoods” are popping up across the country:  East Contra County in Northern California, Montgomery County in Maryland, South Cook County all have significant and growing poor populations.

It’s easy to assume at first that this situation is just an unfortunate consequence of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, but data collected by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, for their book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, suggest otherwise. Suburban poverty is a problem that has been gaining momentum since the late 20th century, and its effects will be felt long after the national economy has recovered from the recession. Kneebone and Berube compiled data from the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., and determined that a vast majority of them experienced significant growth in poor populations

This growth in poverty levels is not simply a matter poor people coming in — the causes run much deeper than that. Kneebone says, “Often when we talk about rising suburban poverty, people automatically think about, 'Well, who’s moving into these neighborhoods? But it’s not just people moving in. There have been two downturns in the last decade, and long-running structural changes in the economy, finding a lot of long-time suburban residents growing poorer, slipping down the economic ladder."

Existing suburban populations are becoming poorer due to a number of factors. Since 2000, many local economies have become based around low-paying service industry jobs, like retail and hospitality — jobs that offer less security and financial stability. Once the Great Recession hit and took away many low-paying jobs, these communities were hit the hardest, only making the problem worse. Additionally, the location of affordable housing has changed, incentivizing low-income families to move into the suburbs.

The task of resolving this issue presents special challenges because suburban poverty does not behave the same way as urban poverty. People living below the poverty line in suburban communities are often far more isolated, without ready access to a transit system to get them to potential employers or social service agencies. And because of the “city poor, suburbs rich” mentality that has permeated our culture, there exist far fewer non-profits and service organizations to help the unemployed. The non-profit “safety net” as Kneebone puts it, is much thinner. It hasn’t been built up over time the way it has in the inner city.

So how do we go about resolving suburban policy? What happens to the people of towns like Lakewood? The solution begins by building up the meager resources that are already in place. The biggest change, however, will come from changing the entire mindset. Because poverty is still thought of as an exclusively urban issue, the bulk of government, non-profit, and philanthropic dollars are still going to these urban resources. By no means should people stop giving to these organizations trying to relieve urban poverty, but they should also realize that the need has changed — that people in the suburbs live below the poverty line as well. The geography of poverty has shifted, and the geography of relief needs to shift as well.