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Why is Poverty Moving to America's Suburbs?

A look at the growth of poverty in the suburbs of America.

Credit: Cranford Patch
Credit: Cranford Patch

Hopes of securing an extension of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million long-term jobless Americans took a blow yesterday when Congress was unable to reach an agreement regarding the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

Although there is still a chance that the program will resume, the earliest that Congress will revisit the legislation is at the end of January.

While the $6.4 billion price tag that would accompany such an extension is difficult for many Americans to swallow, others are anxious to see the program restored.  And you may be surprised by where much of the urgency is coming from.

According to Elizabeth Kneebone, a  fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution, “there are now more poor residents living in suburbs than in major cities.” While unemployment isn’t the only factor contributing to the 65 percent increase of suburban poverty rates since 2000, it certainly has a lot to do with it.

Another cause of the explosion of poverty in American suburbs is related to real estate. “Suburban poverty began to rise before the recession,” says an article in The Economist. “During the subprime bubble, many people with bad credit scores got mortgages and moved to the suburbs... Immigrants, too, chased the American dream of neat lawns and picket fences. Now 51% of immigrants (who are more likely than the native-born to be poor) live in suburbs, compared with just 33% in cities.”

Being poor in the suburbs can be particularly difficult. Kneebone who, with Alan Berube, authored the book “Confronting Suburban Poverty,” points out how the United States wasn’t prepared for this outbreak of poverty in the suburbs, as federal programs to help with the problem were, by and large, designed decades ago and focused on the poor in either cities or rural communities.

Just as the federal infrastructure is unprepared for suburban poverty, so are many of the newly poor. The Brookings Institution reports that 73 percent of service agencies in the suburbs are helping people who have never sought aid before. Liz Carter, executive director of the Cincinnati chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, has firsthand experience with how suburban poverty presents distinct problems. She explains that many “tend to wait and borrow and get in debt, and they’re behind on their mortgages or rent. So they’re coming to us with big problems, and it just takes more to get them back on their feet.”

Have you noticed or experienced poverty growing in the suburbs? Do you think the problem is here to stay?  Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

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