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The Quandary of Suburban Poverty

Neal Peirce / May 31 2013

For Release Sunday, June 2, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceLuis Ubiñas knows what poverty is all about. Today he’s president of the Ford Foundation. But he grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in New York City’s fire- and demolition-ravaged South Bronx, in the midst of some of the most dangerous streets in America. He was raised by a mother who made $50 a week.

Help, though, was on the way, sparked by President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” and programs like community development corporations (CDCs) that were seeded and grown with early foundation support. Today the revived South Bronx pulses with activism and provides a range of services to families still caught in poverty.

Now Ubiñas leads an expanded foundation mission: fighting the poverty that’s spreading rapidly out beyond city boundaries, infecting suburbs in metro regions across the United States. A tipping point was reached in the last decade, as poverty expanded an astounding 53 percent in suburbs, compared to 23 percent in cities. By 2010, exacerbated by the Great Recession, the number of suburbanites living in poverty exceeded the total in cities by 2.6 million.

That startling development and the mega-trends behind it are examined in a new Brookings Institution book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, co-authored by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube. The book, Ford-supported, was released May 20, along with a detailed website, confrontingsuburbanpoverty.org.

One reason for the rise in poverty was the slowdown in suburban-based manufacturing and construction industries, costing jobs and decimating many workers’ income. Another was the rise of housing costs in resurgent central cities, pushing low-income families into suburbs.

An added problem in the South and Southwest has been floods of new immigrants, especially Latinos, into formerly middle-class white suburbs. On the West Coast suburbs like Tukwila, Wash., south of Seattle, have been receiving waves of poor-as-scratch immigrants including Bosnians and Serbs, Somalis and Sudanese, Bhutanese and Nepalese, plus Hispanics.

Metro-wide poverty goes to the very heart of what’s suburbia – namely, a less compact, far more scattered-out population pattern than cities. Ubiñas notes that suburbs are often missing “the qualities that kept many of us from sinking into even deeper, isolated poverty” – adequate public transit, proximity of jobs and housing, nearby libraries, CDCs, community centers and service agencies.

Today’s challenge, he adds, is “to address the immense inequity of having our poorest people live just beyond our sight – not on our subways, not in our parks– just beyond our sight, inaccessible to us as we are inaccessible to them.”

One could step back and say suburban poverty proves the short-sightedness of post-World War II America – building sprawling suburbs instead of compact new towns as every successful world society had since the dawn of history. Plus assuming every household could forever afford automobiles – against today’s reality of hundreds of thousands of poor, isolated, effectively “wheel-less” suburbanites.

Added to that is weak state government support for poor communities. Also, the federal government, while it spends some $82 billion a year on place-based efforts to fight poverty, spreads those efforts among 80-plus programs and 10 different agencies. The critical programs, from Head Start to food stamps, supportive housing to charter schools to tenant-based rental assistance, all have separate rules, regulations and reporting requirements. City governments over time learn how to manage them fairly well, but suburban communities – some competing with their neighbors for new businesses and hostile to the presence of low-income residents at all – are often at a loss.

The Brookings team found three glowing exceptions – relatively well organized efforts to coordinate services for high-poverty communities in the Houston, Chicago and Seattle areas. Perhaps most advanced is Houston’s Neighborhood Centers, which provides some $275 million a year in benefits across the metro region, drawing support from dozens of federal, state and private funding sources.

But how to launch more regional collaboratives? It’s a tough challenge, even though the long-term payoffs – in better services, families prepared to transition to self-sufficiency and children prepared for productive futures – could be dramatic. Community foundations might create structures and incentives. But state government, with their broad legal powers, would be best positioned.

The Brookings authors make a specific suggestion: a “Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge,” some $4 billion a year, created by carving out 5 percent of what Washington now spends on place-based antipoverty efforts. States would be invited to compete for the funds by showing how they would spark reforms to support tailored metro-level strategies and give a lift to families afflicted by poverty.

The idea is ingenious – rather than some bureaucratic fix, getting states to think afresh about their role and capacity, providing incentives to merge compatible programs. And then using the power of competition so that states move to create and support new metro-wide forms of organizations and coalitions. It’s a way to pull towns, cities, agencies and other partners together to face and alleviate growing poverty, that we now know – though few of us ever expected it – is even greater in suburbs than cities.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com. (c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

4 Comments

  1. Terry Flood
    Posted June 1, 2013 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    Hi Neal, as always your column is timely and thought provoking. While Jubilee Jobs in Washington, DC is focused on those living in the city, one of the main struggles of applicants is transportation money and then the reality that at $8.25 per hour, a person employed at entry-level spends the first hour of work everyday working to pay for the privilege of getting there. Transportation access and costs are core issues for suburban poor too – poor anywhere. I believe transportation costs and time need attention and strategy. In Europe transportation benefits for workers (monthly passes for example) often come with a job.
    You might be interested in the Phd dissertation of David Philips who conducted a project at Jubilee Jobs with a grant demonstrating that access to small amounts of transportation help (smart trip cards up to $55) allowed applicants to find jobs more quickly and often at slightly higher salary levels.

  2. Mary DeWolf
    Posted June 1, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Have you a solution for the unbelievable barrios? Go look in El Paso.

  3. Bert Berkley
    Posted June 1, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    NEAL,

    Another excellent column, this one of poverty, a subject that is receiving too little attention by governments at all levels from federal on down.

    Paul Krugman’s May 30 editorial said, “…it’s time to get really angry…” about denying benefits to the most needy. He was referring to the Republican effort to shrink and then effectively kill food stamps.

    You and Krugman are two of the best known and most respected editorial writers in the country. I hope each of you will continue to point out the inadequate help by governments for those in need. You can help create a national feeling of revulsion against those who attempt to undermine giving help to those in poverty.

    The country needs your voice on a continuing basis.

    Warmest Regards,
    Bert Berkley
    (Member, Board of Directors, Institue for Educational Leadership, where we met.)

  4. Mary DeWolf
    Posted June 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    To learn about our neediest ( I’ve seen such in the city) please go to:
    http://www.sos.state.tx.us/border/colonias.shtml