Exclusive Commentary

October 19, 2009: The Suburbanization of American Poverty, By Elizabeth Kneebone, Senior Research Analyst with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings

- The Recession Shows a Changing Landscape


Since December 2007, working families and communities across the country have faced an increasingly difficult economic reality. Growing unemployment and cutbacks in work hours and wages have made it harder and harder for people to make ends meet.

So the census numbers released in September really just confirmed what many Americans have already been feeling during this “Great Recession.” U.S. poverty is once again on the rise. In the first year of the downturn alone, the poor population grew by 2.6 million people to reach a total of 39.8 million, or 13.2 percent of the population.

But that’s not the whole story. The national lens obscures an important fact: place matters. Yes, 2008 brought a significant uptick in poverty, but whether or not your community was a part of this trend has a lot to do with where you live and what kind of jobs are located there.

Certain regions of the country have disproportionately borne the brunt of this recession. Areas hit hardest by the collapse of the housing market and those metro areas that depend on auto manufacturing have experienced the deepest downturns, while regions concentrated in more recession-proof industries – like educational and medical institutions or government – have fared better.

The 2008 poverty numbers reflect this varied experience. Out of the 100 largest metros areas, a little more than one in five saw a significant change in its poverty rate between 2007 and 2008, most of them increases (see map). Not surprisingly, many of these metro areas are located in California and Florida. The early timing of the burst of the housing bubble put these Sun Belt metro areas on the leading edge of what is sure to be a more widespread upward trend in poverty, reflecting a recession that deepened and spread in 2009. In contrast, metro areas like El Paso and Houston actually experienced a decline in poverty rates from 2007 to 2008, reflecting the later onset and milder effects of the downturn in much of Texas.

Although they represent regional economies, metro areas are themselves collections of cities and suburbs that do not necessarily experience poverty or respond to economic shocks uniformly.

Cities remain poorer places overall. In 2008, city residents in the 100 largest metro areas were almost twice as likely as their suburban counterparts to live in poverty—18.3 percent versus 9.5 percent. However, over the first year of the downturn, suburbs actually added more than twice as many poor people (578,000) as cities (218,000). Sun Belt suburbs – like those in the Florida metros of Lakeland, Palm Bay, Tampa, and Miami – led the list for increased poverty. These numbers reflect the fact that the suburbs are home to more people than their primary cities, but they also reflect the growing economic diversity of America’s suburbs.

In fact, an important shift has taken place in the geography of metropolitan poverty over the course of this decade. Between 2000 and 2008, the suburban poor population grew almost five times as fast as the city poor population, so that suburbs are now home to almost 1.9 million more poor people than their primary cities.

Brookings’ recent study on the “Landscape of Recession” within the country’s largest metro areas suggests that the current downturn will further accelerate the suburbanization of poverty.

More so than in the last recession, suburbs are bearing the brunt of this downturn alongside cities. City and suburban unemployment rates increased by nearly equal degrees and in May 2009 were separated by less than a percentage point—9.6 and 8.7 percent, respectively. And rather than concentrating in the older suburbs that surround cities, problems have spread to lower-density “exurbs” and “emerging suburbs” at the metropolitan fringe. These types of suburban communities showed the greatest spikes in their unemployed populations, with an increase of roughly 77 percent.

Clearly, city and suburban residents alike are experiencing increased economic stress, and the coming months and years will test the adequacy and availability of local safety net and emergency services. Here again, place makes a difference.

Case in point: as poverty increased in 2008, more families turned to food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) to help make ends meet. Just as the poor population grew faster in the suburbs, so did SNAP receipt. And yet participation in the program remains much higher in urban counties (8.9 million recipients) than suburban counties (5.3 million recipients). This disparity raises questions about whether families in suburban communities know how to connect to safety net services like food stamps, and how accessible these services are in these communities.

Understanding the shifting local geography of poverty is a critical first step in effectively addressing its alleviation. In our largest metropolitan areas, safety net services and social service providers traditionally have been concentrated in central city neighborhoods. As the geography of metropolitan poverty continues to change, policymakers and service providers must ask whether or not the growing suburban poor population has access to the same kinds of services and programs that can help families weather downturns in the economic cycle or connect to opportunities to work their way out of poverty.

The Great Recession is only likely to exacerbate gaps between available services and growing need, as government programs and nonprofit providers struggle to do more with less. Knowing where the need is, and where it is growing fastest, can help regions more effectively align existing social services and programs to respond to the new map of metropolitan poverty.

Elizabeth Kneebone is a Senior Research Analyst with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings