By Robert Searle, Nidhi Sahni, and Erin Sweeney
The number of poor people living in the suburbs has grown by 64 percent over the last decade (vs. a 29 percent increase in the cities), and today, more than half of all low-income Americans live in suburban areas.
But how important is place when it comes to tackling poverty? As Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, authors of the new book Confronting Suburban Poverty, noted in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year: “Policies to help poor places—as opposed to poor people—haven’t evolved much beyond the War on Poverty’s neighborhood-based solution.” (Read and excerpt from the book here.)
Despite these facts, there is little consensus among policymakers, academics, and service providers about whether foundations and other organizations should direct more attention and funding to the growing number of suburban poor.
Where is it worse to be poor?
“Hands-down, being poor in the suburbs is better on almost every dimension than being poor in the urban center,” one researcher argued, explaining that suburbs typically have better schools, safer streets, and newer housing stock. There is also less concentrated poverty (more than 20 percent of the population in an given area), which is associated with higher rates of crime, unemployment, high school drop-out rates, and other social problems. In fact, reducing the concentration of poverty in cities by connecting poor people to the suburbs has sometimes been seen as part of the solution to poverty, whether that means providing build public housing outside the urban core or enrolling urban children in suburban schools.
Others we spoke to see little comparative advantage to being poor in the suburbs. In this view, the main problems of poverty—employment, education, and limited social mobility—are essentially the same wherever people live. Indeed, compared by gender, age, employment rates, and education (though not by race or ethnicity), poor people in the suburbs closely resemble poor people in the cities.
Still others argue that being poor in the suburbs is in some ways more challenging than in cities. For example, the fragmentation of many suburban areas into dozens of separate municipalities or unincorporated areas can make it harder for the poor to connect to the kind of social and educational services often found in big cities. A Brookings Institution study found that half of suburban municipalities lacked any registered nonprofits providing food assistance, employment, mental health, or substance abuse services. Another study by the Center for Studying Health System Change found that low-income people in the suburbs often go to cities to access “safety net hospitals” that can provide services for people with limited or no insurance. Attitudes matter too. As Harvard professor Lisa McGirr argued in a New York Times article last year, one barrier to services for the suburban poor is that “the municipalities they live in are unaccustomed or even hostile to providing them.” In addition, a Bridgespan sampling of regional funders found that they devoted, on average, four times as much funding to urban poverty than they did to suburban poverty.
Moving beyond here vs. there
Rather than pit urban poverty against suburban poverty in the struggle for limited resources, are there other ways to address the emerging concerns of the suburban poor?
In our view, the best way to move beyond urban-centered approaches without shortchanging the real needs of both poor urban or suburban residents may be regional or cross-jurisdictional collaborations. Whether public, private, or a mix, such collaborations can bring together resources to focus on pressing social concerns that affect both areas. For example, several widely lauded “collective impact” initiatives—such as the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky and the Road Map Project in South Seattle/South King County—have brought together urban and suburban districts to dramatically improve student achievement from cradle to college and career. They did this because educational achievement gaps are more than a purely urban concern. Moreover, leaders of these initiatives have seen a benefit in bringing together the ideas, resources, and experiences of multiple districts—to some extent even encouraging competition—to develop and implement the best solutions.
Other efforts seek to develop a single system that encompasses both urban and suburban regions for the benefit of all residents. In Connecticut, for example, the Hartford Region Open Choice Program is a cross-district school integration model that allows suburban students to attend public schools in urban areas (and vice-versa); it also supports inter-district magnet schools. The Minnesota Fiscal Disparities Program is a property tax pooling policy in the Twin Cities that promotes metro-regional development and distributes tax money more equitably across communities. It is the only tax-pooling program in the nation that operates across counties. In Baltimore, Boston, and other areas, metropolitan housing voucher programs cross city and county lines to help low-income families find affordable homes through the private market.
These programs are not part of some “suburban poverty initiative”—indeed, do we even need one?—but all of these programs are casting their net beyond the city limits and are not letting the near-invisibility of suburban poverty get in the way of doing something about it.