Over the past quarter-century, tens of millions of American families have made the big move to the suburbs. They probably didn’t expect that poverty was moving in right behind them.
New research shows how the landscape of poverty has shifted dramatically since the 1990s, from stereotypical urban “ghettos” to the boarded-up yards of faded blighted commuter towns. Poverty rates across the country have grown at a markedly faster rate in the suburbs than in cities, upending common wisdom about why and where people are getting poorer. Since the early 1990s, poverty has grown by 50 percent, leading to a doubling of the number of poor folks in places previously associated with soccer fields and shiny malls.
Even in large metro regions, suburbs have tumbled toward poverty faster than cities in recent years. For example, “The number of poor persons in suburban Chicago eclipsed the number in the city of Chicago in the last decade…. Seven of every ten suburban municipalities outside Chicago saw the number of poor residents at least double from 1990 to 2014.”
Though the reasons for the suburban crisis aren’t necessarily different from the problems facing cities—a lack of good jobs and weakening social programs—an historical cultural and political neglect of the suburban poor means that new frontiers of inequality are exploding invisibly where we least expect them. Urban poverty, measured by Census tract, has grown from about 18 to 20 percent between 1990 and 2014, but risen more drastically in the suburbs, from about 8 percent to over 12 percent of tracts. And in the last decade, a “tipping point” has been reached in which “the number of poor people living in suburban areas has increased more quickly.”
According to a study by political scientist Scott Allard of the University of Washington, the hidden inequality festering in suburbia reveals that, although many associate suburban lifestyles with middle-class comfort, in many depressed regions, “migration to the suburbs isn’t an automatic guarantee of upward mobility.”
Contrary to stereotype, the suburbs aren’t getting poorer just because poor people are moving in. Rather, suburban towns are eroding from within, and are often structurally less resilient than many metropolitan hubs in adapting to economic recession, deindustrialization, and budget cuts.
The common perception that “new poverty” is “invading” surrounding towns is primarily a suburban myth, fueled by underlying racial and class tensions. “The notion that poverty in suburbs is new or different is tied to the impression that white suburbanites are feeling poverty for the first time in recent years,” Allard writes. But rising suburban poverty generally isn’t due to poor folks moving out of cities. Rather, the implosion of unsustainable suburban development has finally become impossible to ignore.