Suburban Poverty

As Emily Alpert at the Los Angeles Times reports, Brookings has published more of their ongoing series on the suburbanization of poverty. The key finding of Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is that more of the nation’s poor now live in suburbs than in central cities. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, since the majority of Americans now live in suburbs. As the economy shifts toward casualization, underemployment, and deskilled work and away from unions, living wages, and sharing the benefits of productivity among ownership and workers, more Americans face economic hardship. It would be remarkable indeed if this poverty were not redistributed spatially.

Yet postwar iconography apparently obscures the presence of poverty in suburbia (while a separate but linked iconography establishes “the inner city” as the locus of poverty). Both of these symbolic systems verge on geographic determinism, obscuring the historical production of places of wealth and poverty in general and the more particular production of certain suburbs at certain historical moments and under certain political-economic conditions as affluent spaces. They also perform the ideological work of separating metropolitan places in the thinking of the public and makers of public policy. Yet, the phenomenon of suburban poverty would be very poorly understood in isolation from central city changes.

For one thing, all parts of a metropolitan area are linked by a market for real estate, which, as Carl Nightingale astutely observes in Segregation: A Global History, has been part of a triad of practices of segregation in the Anglo-American world, working with racist ideology and racial pseudoscience and the reform and police capacities of the state to extend and enforce segregation in urbanized areas. In the current market, real estate is moving the poor out of many central areas, as Alpert notes.

More poor people moved to the suburbs, pulled by more affordable homes or pushed by urban gentrification, the authors said. Some used the increased mobility of housing vouchers, which used to be restricted by area, to seek better schools and safer neighborhoods in suburbia. Still others, including immigrants, followed jobs as the booming suburbs demanded more workers, many for low-paying, service-sector jobs.

The Of course, these markets are also driving, as they have historically, differentiation among suburbs, a phenomenon that has also been obscured by the image of affluence:

“The myth of suburban prosperity has been a stubborn one,” said Christopher Niedt, who as academic director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University is familiar with the trend Brookings described. Even as suburban poverty emerged, “many poorer communities were so segregated from the wealthy in suburbs that many people were able to ignore it.”

The housing and job markets of a metropolitan area are linked by systems of mobility. Mobility is perversely both a requirement for participation in the active life of a society and an amenity with a price premium in the marketplace, which accounts for profound place-based inequalities. The infrastructure of mobility in cities, which includes the remnants of public transit systems, multiple surface streets, and sidewalks, combined with proximity, means that the market is redistributing mobility upward. People who are best able to afford the automobile-based transportation practices of suburban life can best afford to reject them, while poorer families are stretched further to afford cars as economic necessities. It’s part of our metropolitan political economy that the benefits of past public investment are being taken back from the poor for the benefit of the rich.

Hopefully attention to the suburbanization of poverty will result in some more critical reflection on the links between place and poverty. If a suburb that once housed the upwardly mobile middle class now houses the poor and precariously employed, place itself can’t be the only driver. Rather than thinking reflexively of categories of places as causes of poverty or affluence, it would be more productive for policymakers and the public to think about places in terms of the overlays of property, investment, employment, and mobility networks that affect the prospects of the people who live in them.

One comment on “Suburban Poverty

  1. […] remarkable how strong the hold of the old Park and Burgess concentric zone model is–the peripheralization of poverty is a phenomenon we can hardly even name, let alone […]

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