Confronting Suburban Poverty in America


It has been nearly a half century since President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Back in the 1960s tackling poverty "in place" meant focusing resources in the inner city and in rural areas. The suburbs were seen as home to middle- and upper-class families—affluent commuters and homeowners looking for good schools and safe communities in which to raise their kids. But today's America is a very different place. Poverty is no longer just an urban or rural problem, but increasingly a suburban one as well. In...

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It has been nearly a half century since President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Back in the 1960s tackling poverty "in place" meant focusing resources in the inner city and in rural areas. The suburbs were seen as home to middle- and upper-class families—affluent commuters and homeowners looking for good schools and safe communities in which to raise their kids. But today's America is a very different place. Poverty is no longer just an urban or rural problem, but increasingly a suburban one as well. In Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube take on the new reality of metropolitan poverty and opportunity in America.

After decades in which suburbs added poor residents at a faster pace than cities, the 2000s marked a tipping point. Suburbia is now home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country and more than half of the metropolitan poor. However, the antipoverty infrastructure built over the past several decades does not fit this rapidly changing geography. As Kneebone and Berube cogently demonstrate, the solution no longer fits the problem.

The spread of suburban poverty has many causes, including shifts in affordable housing and jobs, population dynamics, immigration, and a struggling economy. The phenomenon raises several daunting challenges, such as the need for more (and better) transportation options, services, and financial resources. But necessity also produces opportunity—in this case, the opportunity to rethink and modernize services, structures, and procedures so that they work in more scaled, cross-cutting, and resource-efficient ways to address widespread need. This book embraces that opportunity.

Kneebone and Berube paint a new picture of poverty in America as well as the best ways to combat it. Confronting Suburban Poverty in America offers a series of workable recommendations for public, private, and nonprofit leaders seeking to modernize poverty alleviation and community development strategies and connect residents with economic opportunity. The authors highlight efforts in metro areas where local leaders are learning how to do more with less and adjusting their approaches to address the metropolitan scale of poverty—for example, integrating services and service delivery, collaborating across sectors and jurisdictions, and using data-driven and flexible funding strategies.

"We believe the goal of public policy must be to provide all families with access to communities, whether in cities or suburbs, that offer a high quality of life and solid platform for upward mobility over time. Understanding the new reality of poverty in metropolitan America is a critical step toward realizing that goal."—from Chapter One

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

" Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is one of those rare books that changes the way we think about an important domestic problem. It is replete with original findings and policy insights and will be widely cited and discussed. Kneebone and Berube's illuminating study on the dramatic growth of poverty in suburbs is a must-read not only for scholars, but also for policymakers and concerned citizens."—William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University

"Effectively helping families and communities under duress from the foreclosure crisis and Great Recession has required new types of partnerships within the nonprofit community and with private sector partners. This book explores how creative partnerships are guiding anti-poverty policy and practice into a future of tight capital and increasing need."—Sister Lillian Murphy, CEO, Mercy Housing

" Confronting Suburban Poverty provides critical insight into why the new reality of suburban poverty is difficult to address as well as the kinds of promising cross-border strategies that need more state and federal support. This important book reminds us why today's demographics require us to develop tomorrow's solutions."—Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County (Ill.) Board President

"If you thought suburban poverty was an oxymoron, this important book will set you straight. Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube tell us the facts and offer thoughtful reforms to help under-resourced suburbs cope in our 21st-century world."—Peter Edelman, Professor of Law, Georgetown Law Center

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815723905
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 5/14/2013
  • Series: James A. Johnson Metro Series
  • Pages: 169
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Kneebone is a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings

Alan Berube is a senior fellow and deputy director at the Metropolitan Policy Program.

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Read an Excerpt


By Elizabeth Kneebone, Alan Berube

Brookings Institution Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2390-5



Poverty and the Suburbs: An Introduction

Drive about forty-five miles east of San Francisco, tracing a route across the Bay Bridge, through the Caldecott Tunnel outside Oakland, past the wealthy suburbs of central Contra Costa County, and along the California Delta Highway that eventually leads to the state's Central Valley. There you find a series of communities in transition—from industrial cities to bedroom suburbs, from agricultural lands to residential havens, and from outposts of the middle class to symbols of modern American poverty.

In the 2000s, the number of people living in poverty in East Contra Costa County ("East County") grew by more than 70 percent—a rapid increase for these relatively small places, but not an isolated one. From Cleveland's long-struggling inner suburbs, to the immigrant portals south of Seattle, to aging communities surrounding Chicago, or the traditionally affluent Maryland suburbs of the nation's capital—almost every major metropolitan area in the country has experienced rising poverty beyond its urban core. Despite the fact that "poverty in America" still conjures images of inner-city slums, the suburbanization of poverty has redrawn the contemporary American landscape. After decades of growth and change in suburbs, coupled with long-term economic restructuring and punctuated by the deepest U.S. economic downturn in seventy years, today more Americans live below the poverty line in suburbs than in the nation's big cities.

Changing populations and shifting economics characterize the experience of suburban communities in East County. These places, which Alex Schafran dubs "Cities of Carquinez" after the nearby Carquinez Strait, were established in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Refineries, factories, mills, working ports, and train and ferry depots dotted the small cities of Pittsburg and Antioch, and unincorporated Bay Point, a century ago. Victorian and Craftsman homes still line the older streets in the portions of these communities near the coastline. Further inland, boomtowns like Brentwood and Oakley retain visible vestiges of their recent agricultural past, when they were western outposts of California's Central Valley rather than eastern suburbs of the Bay Area.

As the Bay Area economy grew and changed in the late twentieth century, however, these East County cities began to shed their farming and industrial character, and exploded in population and new single-family suburban development. The boom was especially rapid in the early to mid-2000s, as a run-up in real estate values in closer-in Bay Area communities made many of these cities an "escape valve" for "drive 'til you qualify" middle-class families seeking affordable homeownership. While their economic heritage meant that these cities had long been home to diverse working-class populations, they also experienced a visible influx of new black and Hispanic residents during this period, most of whom commuted long distances back into the region's core each day for work.

Even amid the relative boom of the early to mid-2000s, broader economic shifts saw the typical household's income in these communities stagnate or fall and the poor population grow, as more residents made their living in quickly growing but lower-wage industries like construction, retail, and hospitality. When the housing market crashed in 2006, however, the economic bottom fell out of East County. Construction workers lost jobs. Families lost wage earners and found themselves slipping down the economic ladder. The subregion became the unofficial foreclosure capital of the Bay Area. At the same time, property investors unable to sell newly built homes recruited low-income renters with government-issued housing vouchers, which gave rise to new community tensions. Local fiscal coffers that relied heavily on property taxes took a beating, even as demand for services skyrocketed. Whereas the poor population had grown more slowly in the earlier part of the decade, the number of people below the poverty line in these relatively small communities rose by nearly 10,000 in the span of just three years—double the increase of the early to mid-2000s.

Not only did these challenges far outstrip the capacity of a strained local public sector, but they also overwhelmed the area's extremely thin nonprofit safety net. Small, local job training organizations could not keep pace with the demand from a burgeoning unemployed population. Foreclosure counselors were in short supply. Most philanthropic dollars in the region remained tethered to historically poor communities in Oakland, San Francisco, or other big cities. Compounding the challenge, the Cities of Carquinez were literally at the "end of the line" in the Bay Area, lacking proximity and transportation options that might help their residents access needed services.

While those eastern Bay Area communities have faced dramatic changes in recent years, their situation mirrors that of an increasing number of suburbs across the United States. This book explores the complicated changes occurring in suburban communities that for several decades defined the middle-class American dream. Why is poverty on the rise there? What are the consequences for those places and their residents? And what, if anything, should society do about it?

Poverty is a relatively new phenomenon in many suburbs, at least at these levels. As such, it upends deeply fixed notions of where poverty occurs and whom it affects. As poverty becomes increasingly regional in its scope and reach, it challenges conventional approaches that the nation has taken when dealing with poverty in place.

Many of those approaches were shaped when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national War on Poverty in 1964. At that time, poor Americans were most likely to live in inner-city neighborhoods or sparsely populated rural areas. Fifty years later, public perception still largely casts poverty as an urban or rural phenomenon. Poverty rates do remain higher in cities and rural communities than elsewhere. But for three decades the poor population has grown fastest in suburbs. The especially rapid pace of growth in the 2000s saw suburbs ultimately outstrip other types of communities so that they now account for the largest poor population in the country. More types of people and places are being touched by economic hardship than in the past, including those that may have once seemed immune to such challenges.

The changing map of American poverty matters because place matters. It starts with the metropolitan areas, the regional economies that cut across city and suburban lines and drive the national economy. Place intersects with core policy issues central to the long-term health and stability of metropolitan areas and to the economic success of individuals and families—things like housing, transportation, economic and workforce development, and the provision of education, health, and other basic services. Where people live influences the kinds of educational and economic opportunities and the range of public services available to them, as well as what barriers to accessing those opportunities may exist. The country's deep history of localism means that, within the same metropolitan area, a resident of one community will not necessarily have the same access to good jobs and quality schools, or even basic health and safety services, as a person in another community, whether across the region or right next door.

Poverty's Historic Homes

For decades, experts have framed the debate around the intersection of poverty and place largely in an urban or rural context—for instance, the negative effects of living in an inner-city ghetto or barrio, or the challenges of rural isolation. Poverty rates in these types of communities remain much higher than for the nation as a whole, and for decades these areas have been home to significant portions of the nation's poor, giving rise to an extensive literature that documents the trends and impacts of deep and entrenched poverty in both urban and rural America.

The problems of inner cities received wide attention beginning in the 1960s. In Tally's Corner, ethnographer Elliot Liebow documented the lives of the urban poor in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former assistant secretary of labor, issued a controversial report on black poverty arguing that "ghetto culture" and the decline of the nuclear family led to economic hardship. Ken Auletta, Nicholas Lemann, and others followed with portraits of urban "underclass" communities in the 1980s suffering from violent crime, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and eventually the crack cocaine epidemic. Much of this work focused on how the behaviors of poor residents contributed to the deep challenges facing their neighborhoods.

In the 1980s and 1990s, scholar William Julius Wilson posited that structural factors—including the decline of manufacturing jobs for lower-skilled city workers—led to a rise in joblessness that increased poverty and ultimately affected cultural norms and behaviors in declining urban neighborhoods. He also argued that growing concentrations of poverty in predominantly minority, inner-city areas undermined community institutions and networks formerly maintained by middle-class and working-class families, and removed positive role models for children, helping to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton explored how the legacy of racial segregation shaped contemporary urban poverty in the early 1990s.

Paul Jargowsky and others went on to document trends in concentrated poverty across the country, finding the largest concentrations of the poor in inner-city neighborhoods with much higher shares of minorities, single mothers, high school dropouts, and working-age men outside the labor force than in areas with less poverty. Others, including George Galster, examined the thresholds at which concentrations of poverty led to appreciable negative effects on residents, neighborhoods, and the larger region that housed them, including poorer health and educational outcomes, increased crime, and falling property values.

In a parallel vein over this same time period, rural poverty experts explored the persistence and depth of poverty in the nation's wide-ranging and far-flung rural communities. These explorations focused on structural factors in the community as well as individual characteristics of the poor, including the decline of traditional industries, out-migration, and low educational levels. Janet Fitchen chronicled the persistence of generational poverty in rural households in upstate New York, finding that contemporary families were unable to adapt to economic shifts toward modern agriculture. Looking at Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, Cynthia Duncan found that places with greater evidence of multigenerational poverty were also home to social structures that isolated people with lower incomes from better-off residents, inhibiting social mobility. Regardless of the mechanisms at play, poverty in rural communities and across generations has proven a seemingly intractable, and in fact growing, issue. Children in rural areas today are more likely than a generation ago to live in communities plagued by persistently high poverty over decades.

The Dawn of the Modern Suburb

In contrast, suburbs have traditionally inhabited a very different popular narrative in American culture, one in which poverty generally does not feature (except perhaps to the extent that the rise of the suburbs signaled—and even contributed to—urban decline). In many ways, suburbs have been central to the particular brand of the American dream that developed rapidly after World War II. Moving to suburbia signaled a step up—a house with a yard, a car to drive to work, good schools, and safe streets. As Bernadette Hanlon and her colleagues noted:

The very pursuit of happiness in post-war history was synonymous with the suburbs. A move to the suburbs symbolized many things in the American context. It was a move of social and economic mobility: a path that led away from the nation's ailing central cities and to the emergent suburban frontier. The American Dream was realized in the nation's nascent suburbs.

Perhaps most emblematic of the fast-growing suburban communities that multiplied in the postwar era were the developments built by Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred. In the Levittowns built on Long Island, and outside Philadelphia (in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Willingboro, New Jersey), Levitt and Sons honed their approach to suburban development, using a standardized housing design, preassembled parts, and vertical integration of suppliers to speed production. Regarding these cookie-cutter Cape Cods with a living room, a bathroom, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a yard, Kenneth Jackson observed, "This early Levitt house was as basic to post World War II suburban development as the Model T had been to the automobile. In each case, the actual design features were less important than the fact that they were mass-produced and thus priced within reach of the middle class." Jackson also noted that while Levitt did not invent many of the techniques he employed, the wide publicity of his developments served to popularize his approach. Large builders in metropolitan areas throughout the country—including developers in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Washington—adopted similar methods.

The rapid build-out of the suburbs in that period reflected both the pull of and the push toward suburbia. William Lucy and David Phillips observed that "individual preferences provided the motivation, and development institutions and policies ... provided the means" that drove suburban growth, often led by affluent households. Aging and declining urban infrastructure, pollution, poor schools, and perceptions of rising crime in central cities, coupled with the promise of new, single-family homes, clean air, and green spaces, made the burgeoning suburbs all the more desirable. The draw of the suburbs reached across class lines, yet affluent households—especially those headed by middle- and upper-class whites—were able to act on those preferences more readily, particularly when aided by policies and institutions that paved the way (sometimes literally) for the move to the suburbs.

The "means" Lucy and Phillips refer to came from an array of programs and policies that enabled and encouraged large-scale suburbanization. According to Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue:

Public policies, including federal housing and economic development subsidies, state and local land-use policies and environmental regulations, locally administered services and taxation policies, and locally controlled schools, all inexorably shaped the process of suburbanization in the postwar period. The division of metropolitan areas by race and class, a division that was reified and reinforced through the drawing of hard municipal boundaries, created a distinct form of spatialized inequality in the modern United States.

At the federal level, a range of programs and policies contributed to rapid suburbanization in this period, whether by encouraging and easing the way to homeownership or heavily subsidizing the roads and sewers needed to support "greenfield" development at the urban fringe. For prospective home buyers, insured mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the GI Bill's Veterans Affairs (VA) mortgage program freed up the flow of private capital for home loans. Further subsidies for homeowners came in the form of federal tax breaks, like the home mortgage interest deduction. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which covered 90 percent of the cost of highway construction, set in motion the rapid development of the interstate highway system that not only connected major regions across the country but enabled suburban development to extend deeper into the countryside with the promise of easier commutes for would-be suburbanites. In that same year, Congress enacted legislation to subsidize more than half the cost of new sewer treatment facilities, further facilitating the development of the infrastructure needed to support suburban growth.

As these federal investments drove the widespread suburbanization of a predominantly white middle class, other people and places faced disinvestment. For instance, the tax code provided an open-ended subsidy for homeowners but allowed no parallel housing benefit for renters. For homeowners, the most favorable home loans went to new construction, while loans for improvements or rehabilitation were smaller and given for shorter durations. All of these factors favored suburban development over central cities. Moreover, federal loan insurance programs essentially codified the private market's practice of redlining, curtailing lending to inner cities and minorities. From 1945 to 1959, approximately 90 percent of all FHA and VA mortgages were for suburban homes, yet fewer than 2 percent went to African Americans. At the same time, federal investments in roads enabled the rise of the auto-dependent suburbs rather than encouraging denser development around mass transit. Andres Duany and his colleagues observed that the nation's suburban expansion lacked "incentives to integrate different housing types or incomes among the new construction. In a sense our government did half its job: it provided the means to escape the city—highways and cheap home loans—while neglecting to allocate those means fairly."

Excerpted from CONFRONTING SUBURBAN POVERTY IN AMERICA by Elizabeth Kneebone. Copyright © 2013 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword Luis A. Ubiñas, President, Ford Foundation....................     vii     

Acknowledgments....................     xi     

1 Poverty and the Suburbs: An Introduction....................     1     

2 Suburban Poverty, by the Numbers....................     13     

3 Behind the Numbers: What's Driving Suburban Poverty?....................     37     

4 The Implications of Suburban Poverty....................     55     

5 Fighting Today's Poverty with Yesterday's Policies....................     77     

6 Innovating Locally to Confront Suburban Poverty....................     96     

7 Modernizing the Metropolitan Opportunity Agenda....................     113     

Notes....................     145     

Index....................     161     

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