More Suburban Poor? Think Again

What do Lynn, Brockton, Lincoln, Westwood, Watertown and Revere have in common? According to a new report by the Brookings Institution “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” they are all suburbs […]

What do Lynn, Brockton, Lincoln, Westwood, Watertown and Revere have in common?

According to a new report by the Brookings Institution “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” they are all suburbs of Boston, despite their vast differences.  Does this seem strange to you? It does to me.

The Brookings report is getting a great deal of attention in recent days because it offers a compelling and challenging message: Suburban poverty is exploding across America and our federal policies are poorly designed to meet this challenge. Many people are already citing the report as evidence of the need for a new anti-poverty strategy.

I would agree that we need new approaches to reducing poverty. Indeed, perhaps the most stunning finding in the report is how much poverty has grown over the past decade, largely as the result of the deep economic recession. Hopefully, that will turn around as the economy slowly recovers, but deep structural problems in our economy will likely result in high poverty rates for years to come unless we embrace a much larger national commitment to reducing poverty.

I would also agree with Brookings that smaller municipalities often struggle with addressing poverty because they have less financial and technical capacity than larger cities. Regional collaboration – a core recommendation of the book – is certainly a part of the solution.

All that said I have some questions about the report’s findings and recommendations:
1. The Brookings' definition of “suburb” is meaningless

Brookings defines “suburb” as any municipality with less than 100,000 people, regardless of its wealth, density, housing stock, or anything else. Therefore, according to the report, wealthy communities with mostly single family homes can be considered “urban” while dense, poor cities with significant rental housing can be considered “suburbs.”

Such an incomplete and inaccurate definition makes the use of the word “suburb” meaningless at best, and misleading at worst, especially in metro Boston. It is a serious mistake to conflate truly suburban communities like Lincoln and Westwood with smaller urban cities like Lynn, Brockton, and Revere, because they face different challenges, have different resources, and need different solutions.

There may in fact be more poor people in the “suburbs” as Brookings contends under their constrained definition, and maybe this even means that we are moving to a more equitable distribution of poverty in our region. I’m skeptical. What might be happening instead is that our smaller cities are getting poorer and the true suburbs remain largely exclusive. 

The Brookings data clearly indicates that poverty is dispersed across metro regions, but without further analysis, the Brookings findings do not help us to understand whether this is a suburban phenomenon or a small city one. The difference matters, especially where I live in metro Boston where our region has many small cities with significant poverty.

2. The majority of federal spending is not on place-based poverty programs

Brookings goes on to contend, based on these flawed definitions of “urban” and “suburban” that the federal government's anti-poverty programs are too “placed-based” and overly focused on “urban” areas. Yet, the largest anti-poverty programs by far in America are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. None of these are placed-based!

Moreover, Brookings's definition of “placed-based” does not make much sense, as it includes programs such as HOME and LIHTC, which provide housing in urban, rural and suburban communities. The report even includes mobile housing vouchers that are explicitly not placed-based and the new HUD Sustainable Communities Program, which is explicitly regional. I worry that Brookings perpetuates the false impression that the federal government actually spends significant money outside of our core entitlement programs on fighting poverty. With recent budget cuts, this is less true than ever, and the Brookings report could reinforce the false notion that federal programs are too expensive and ineffective and should be slashed.

Of course, Brookings does not advocate for federal budget cuts. Rather, Brookings says on its website that “the answer to these challenges is not to shift limited resources from poor urban to poor suburban communities.” That sounds good until you read the next paragraph where they propose to do just that by taking 5 percent of the funding now focused on so-called “placed-based” programs and creating a new Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge program. This might be a great new program, but robbing Peter to pay Paul is not an effective strategy.

3. Place matters

Finally, there is a growing body of evidence connecting place to social/economic outcomes. I find it strange that Brookings is now recommending that we move away from efforts to improve places. I thought we were done with the tired debate about place-based vs. people-based efforts and that it was widely understood that both were needed. (The same is true for the newer, but already tired, debate about whether to focus on regions or neighborhoods.)

There is no doubt that we need a more thoughtful and direct approach to addressing poverty in both suburbs and smaller cities. Our members struggle with these challenges every day. If the Brookings report helps spur that conversation and drives resources to that effort, then it would have a positive impact.

The report is likely to push a very important conversation about regional equity and reducing concentrated poverty. But, I would encourage you to read beyond the headlines and examine the report’s assumptions, definitions, and recommendations. And I would encourage Brookings and others to conduct a more fine-tuned analysis. The stakes are too high to misdiagnose what is going on with poverty across America

For a different perspective on “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” check out J. Rosie Tighe's post and a response from the authors, Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, on Rooflines.

(Photo by ferncanyonman CC BY-NC-ND)

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