“Confronting Suburban Poverty” Authors Respond to Critique

The release a few weeks ago of our book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is provoking lots of discussion in the blogosphere. The book even merited its publisher, The  Brookings Institution, a […]

The release a few weeks ago of our book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is provoking lots of discussion in the blogosphere.

The book even merited its publisher, The  Brookings Institution, a description as “something of a Vatican for anti-suburban theology.”

But more seriously, J. Rosie Tighe reflected here on Rooflines on how our findings reveal the importance of the perception of poverty in the United States, whether racial or spatial, and shape how we address it.

Our book and Tighe’s post also raised a number of questions for Joe Kriesberg, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, who authored a follow up titled More Suburban Poor? Think Again.

Kriesberg raises three particular points of concern (paraphrased below) that we think deserve further clarification and discussion.
1. Many of Brookings’ suburbs aren’t really “suburbs.”

There is no one definition of “suburb,” and that alone can complicate discussions of poverty and place.

We define suburbs by starting with metropolitan statistical areas (MSA), which are regional labor markets defined by the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget based on population and commuting patterns. We identify cities as the first named city in the MSA title and any other named city that has a population of 100,000 or more. We treat the remainder of MSAs as suburbs.

To be sure, this forsakes a lot of nuance. In particular, many “satellite cities” in older regions of the Northeast and Midwest aren’t large enough today in terms of population or jobs to qualify as cities, and thus, we treat them as suburbs. And for every place like Gary, Indiana (population 80,000), there’s a much larger Gilbert, Arizona (population 212,000), that’s nothing if not suburban.

But while older places may have functioned economically as cities a few decades ago, when they had more jobs and were real employment bases within their regions, today they are effectively bedroom communities for commuters like most other suburbs.

Though imperfect, our approach to identifying “cities” and “suburbs” offers a consistent set of criteria for distinguishing between the urban hubs around which metro areas form (the heart(s) of the regional labor market), and the rest of the region.

Recognizing that this measure of “suburbia” doesn’t fully reflect the complex range of places and experiences that exist outside of central cities in regions across the country, we actually spend a great deal of time in the book talking about the diversity among suburbs, and how their size, capacity, regional labor market, and population trends (whether they are growing or declining) affect their experience of, and response to, growing poverty.

Small cities in older regions do often have above-average suburban poverty rates. This is true of Lynn, Brockton, and Revere in greater Boston, places Kriesberg mentions in his post. Those towns have struggled for longer than many places with these challenges, and have seen poverty continue to grow. However, they aren’t where the fastest growth rates in the suburban poor have occurred in recent years. Towns like Randolph and Danvers, more traditionally suburban in feel, led the list, as their poor populations more than doubled over the last decade.

The awareness of and resources to address growing poverty differ across these communities, as does proximity to jobs, schools, safety net services, and other opportunities that can not only help poor families make ends meet in the short term, but find a path out of poverty in the long term.

2. Brookings’ place-based programs aren’t really place-based.

We take pains in Chapter 5 of the book to frame our discussion of place-based, anti-poverty policy. We define these policies and programs as those that aim to improve opportunities for low-income families by focusing on improving the places where they live: through neighborhood economic development, better access to services, and even mobility programs that help low-income families move to new neighborhoods.

Based on that definition, we identify 81 federal programs that total about $82 billion in spending, spread across 10 agencies. The bulk of our discussion focuses on how fragmented and ill-designed this suite of programs is for addressing a more suburban landscape of poverty, because it’s more spread out, or because it’s in places without the capacity or political will to execute these programs. (Smarter new approaches like Sustainable Communities are in that total too, but make up a tiny fraction of that $82 billion.)

All along the way, we acknowledge that core safety net supports—“people-based programs” like tax credits, subsidized health insurance, and nutritional assistance—are just as, if not more, critical to fighting poverty in this country. We even have a whole discussion dedicated to the “people versus place” debate and how we need both.

Of course more resources to address poverty at the federal level would be ideal. But even with new dollars, the challenge would remain of how to spend them more effectively to help more people in more places. And the fact is, we are seriously unlikely to see new dollars materialize anytime soon.

So, we propose to repurpose a small fraction of what we already spend on place-based programs to support models that more effectively and efficiently respond to the changing geography of poverty and opportunity within regions, improving outcomes for poor residents and communities no matter where they are located. That’s not moving resources from places to people (or “robbing Peter to pay Paul” as Kriesberg terms it), it’s making our place-based strategies more responsive to current realities, and maybe even integrating them more smartly with our people-based programs.

3. Place still matters

Well, of course it does. We can’t create real access to economic opportunity without understanding the opportunities and barriers that exist across and within places. The whole premise of this book is that where you live makes a difference. And if you’re poor, and you live in the suburbs, you may face a different set of challenges than our policies and systems were set up to address.

Pursuing strategies that take a more integrated and collaborative approach and that operate at a more effective scale is how we make limited place-based resources stretch further to improve outcomes for poor residents everywhere.

Getting wrapped up in definitions and old debates risks missing the point. The geography of poverty has changed. We need systems and strategies that make policy more flexible and efficient in adapting to the needs of low-income people and places, whether they are urban, suburban, or rural. That means putting more resources (federal, state, local, or philanthropic) in the hands of institutions that can do more than one thing, in more than one place, at the same time.

Kriesberg concludes his post by encouraging us to “read beyond the headlines and examine the report’s assumptions, definitions, and recommendations.” We couldn’t agree more (it’s a book, by the way)!

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