If you were to ask a group of Americans to pinpoint poverty in this country, a good many would tell you you to turn a watchful eye to the inner-city blocks. Perhaps others would suggest you look at the isolated valleys of rural Appalachian coal mining towns. But few would point you to the suburbs, our country's neatly manicured, leafy green mazes of driveways and cul-de-sacs. That's a shame; it's this very misperception that makes the issue so pernicious.
In recent decades, the number of suburbanites living in poverty has increased at an alarming clip. In 1990, there were 9.5 million poor people living in America's 100 largest cities, and 8.6 million poor people living in the suburbs of those cities. By 2014, there were 17 million poor people in the suburbs of the country's 100 largest metro areas, and less than 13 million in the cities themselves. The average suburban poverty rate, meanwhile increased from 8.3 percent in 1990 to 12.2 percent in 2014.
Poverty, in other words, is now a suburban problem, just as much as it's an urban or rural problem. In his new book, Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty, Scott Allard, a poverty researcher and professor at the University of Washington, explores this phenomenon and its many implications. Allard spoke to Pacific Standard about what's driving suburban poverty rates, how the mismatch between perception and reality may affect support for safety net programs, and what the changing distribution of poverty means for the social safety net.
Tell me about what's happened to the spatial distribution of poverty over the last 25 years?
Contrary to our popular impressions, over the last 25 to 30 years, poverty problems in suburbs have steadily grown worse. Even so in 1990, if you were to read journalistic accounts, and certainly academic and policy research accounts of poverty in America, people would have been talking about urban crises and the urban underclass. But even at that point, there were almost as many poor people in the suburbs of our largest cities as in the cities themselves.
It's really been a blind spot for us in many ways, in part because poverty rates in suburbs historically have been much lower. And part of it is because of the popular imagery we associate with poverty and the rhetoric and symbols we use to talk about the poor, and that locates low-income households in a distinctly urban context.
When you look at the data over time, what's really apparent is that poverty is not a new phenomenon in suburbs. And that it's been building steadily over the last several decades due to many of the same forces that have led to higher rates of poverty in cities and in rural communities.
So these changes that we're seeing are partly due to larger economic trends and partly due to the changing demographics of the suburbs?
Every community is going to have its own mix of considerations that are shaping the trend. Economic forces are certainly universal. The loss of good-paying manufacturing or industrial-type jobs that were in cities maybe 50 to 60 years ago and then left—there were some of those jobs in suburbs, and they have started to leave in many places. And the labor market places a premium on education and returns to education, so that also matters if you don't have a college degree, it's much harder, no matter where you live, to find a good-paying job.