The Invisible Poverty of the Suburbs

Our anti-poverty policies have failed the suburban poor, say Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube. Their new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” highlights our country’s historically fragmented approach to urban […]

Our anti-poverty policies have failed the suburban poor, say Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube.

Their new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” highlights our country’s historically fragmented approach to urban poverty, and how that has limited the effectiveness of public policies and funding mechanisms. While the establishment of HUD as a cabinet-level office did much to unite the then-disparate programs that served to combat poverty, there remains considerable division throughout federal and state government.

This fragmentation is particularly telling when analyzing programs and funding mechanisms designed to combat poverty outside of urban areas.
The book also spurred a website dedicated to the same theme. The project is of superb depth, and one can find an enormous amount of data and policy recommendations on the site and through Brookings, which published the book.

Increasingly, poverty in America is found in suburban communities, small towns, and rural areas. However, we continue to use policies and methods that were created and honed for use in cities. As Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, pointed out in the Brookings webcast marking the release of the book, non-urban poverty has many of the same challenges as urban poverty, but without much of the infrastructure present in cities.

There are many examples of how urban-centered policies are inadequate. Here are a few:

  • Public transport primarily includes schedules that assume a commute into a city, not from suburb to suburb, enhancing car dependence, straining low-income suburban households;
  • Key services such as child care, health care, and job training are seldom located in suburban areas, limiting access to needed resources;
  • Section 8 vouchers to support housing mobility are of little use in the suburbs where rental housing is scarce and few landlords accept them;
  • Stigma surrounding programs such as free school lunch, EFT, and housing subsidies may be felt more strongly in the suburbs where fewer people utilize these services. This may prevent households who qualify for such programs from taking advantage of them.

Another of the big issues that the research from Brookings brings forth is how we as Americans see poverty. Public opinion studies demonstrate that Americans consistently link “poverty” and “minority status” in our minds.

The emphasis in public policy and in the media on urban poverty (not to mention, the title of the cabinet office most dedicated to poverty) has enhanced these perceptions and stereotypes that are so unfortunately prevalent today.

Americans think of the poor as urban and non-white, and the perception that urban poverty is somehow unique contributes to the racialization of poverty in the media and in our minds. It is easy for white, middle-class Americans to view the poor as different, as “others,” if they are brown city-dwellers. Confronting the reality of suburban and rural poverty—of white, working-class poverty—may change perceptions and promote broader support for anti-poverty policies.

As Kneebone and Berube conclude:

“Rather than shift limited resources from poor urban to poor suburban communities, we need new policies and practices that confront barriers to opportunity not just at the community level, but at the regional scale of the economy. Almost 50 years after the War on Poverty began, we must renew the challenge and unleash new and adaptive systems that build and rebuild ladders of opportunity for poor families and communities nationwide.”

The Brookings project on suburban poverty makes important points about how poverty today is no less important than the urban poverty of the past, and that we need to address it using innovative, regional approaches.

However, by emphasizing suburban poverty alongside urban, they may be perpetuating a “geographic” emphasis of poverty that excludes rural areas. When looking at regional approaches to address poverty, we need to establish access and opportunity for all households: Urban, suburban, and rural.

I would suggest that broadening the understanding of non-urban poverty might serve to change our stereotypes of the poor, reduce the tendency to view the poor as a somehow lesser “other” population, and move forward with programs that truly enhance opportunity for the less fortunate everywhere.

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