Columnist: The Puzzling Quandaries of Suburban Poverty

June 3, 2013

By Neal Peirce

Luis Ubinas knows what poverty is all about. Today he's president of the Ford Foundation. But he grew up in the 1960s and '70s in New York City's fire- and demolition-ravaged South Bronx, in the midst of some of the most dangerous streets in America. He was raised by a mother who made $50 a week.

Help, though, was on the way, sparked by President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and programs like the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) that were seeded and grown with early foundation support. Today the revived South Bronx pulses with activism and provides ranges of services to families still caught in poverty.

Now Ubinas leads an expanded foundation mission: fighting the poverty that's spreading rapidly out beyond city boundaries, infecting suburbs in metro regions across the United States. A tipping point was reached in the last decade as poverty expanded an astounding 53 percent in suburbs, compared to 23 percent in cities. By 2010, exacerbated by the Great Recession, the number of suburbanites living in poverty exceeded the total in cities by 2.6 million.

This startling development and the mega-trends behind it are examined in a new Brookings Institution book, "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America," co-authored by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube. The book, supported by the Ford Foundation, was released -- along with a detailed website -- confrontingsuburbanpoverty.org -- May 20.

One reason for the rise in poverty was the slowdown in suburban-based manufacturing and construction industries, costing jobs and decimating many workers' income. Another was the rise of housing costs in resurgent central cities, pushing low-income families into suburbs.

An added problem in the South and Southwest has been floods of new migrants, especially Latinos, into formerly middle-class white suburbs. On the West Coast, suburbs such as Tukwila, Wash., south of Seattle, have been receiving waves of poor-as-scratch migrants including Bosnians and Serbs, Somalis and Sudanese, Bhutanese and Nepalese, plus Hispanics.

Metrowide poverty goes to the very heart of what is suburbia -- namely, a less compact, far more scattered-out population pattern than in cities. Ubinas notes that suburbs are often missing "the qualities that kept many of us from sinking into even deeper, isolated poverty" -- adequate public transit, proximity of jobs and housing, nearby libraries, CDCs, community centers, service agencies.
Today's challenge, he adds, is "to address the immense inequity of having our poorest people live just beyond our sight -- not on our subways, not in our parks -- just beyond our sight, inaccessible to us as we are inaccessible to them."

One could step back and say suburban poverty proves the short-sightedness of post-World War II America -- building sprawling suburbs instead of compact new towns as every successful world society had since the dawn of history. Plus assuming every household could forever afford automobiles -- against today's reality of hundreds of thousands of poor, isolated, effectively "wheel-less" suburbanites.
Added to that is weak state government support for poor communities. And the fact that the federal government, while it spends about $82 billion a year on place-based efforts to fight poverty, spreads it among 80-plus programs and 10 different agencies. The crucial programs, from Head Start to food stamps, supportive housing to charter schools to tenant-based rental assistance, all have separate rules, regulations and reporting requirements. City governments over time learn how to manage them fairly well, but suburban communities -- some competing with their neighbors for new businesses and hostile to having low-income residents at all -- are often at a loss.

The Brookings team found three glowing exceptions -- relatively well organized efforts to coordinate services for high-poverty communities in the Houston, Chicago and Seattle areas. Perhaps most advanced is Houston's Neighborhood Centers, providing about $275 million in benefits across the metro region, drawing support from dozens of federal, state and private funding sources.

But how to get more regional collaboratives launched? It's a tough challenge, even though the long-term payoffs in better services, families prepared to transition to self-sufficiency, children prepared for productive futures, could be dramatic. Community foundations might create structures and incentives. But state governments -- with their broad legal powers -- would be best positioned.

The Brookings authors make a specific suggestion: a "Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge," about $4 billion a year, created by carving out 5 percent of what Washington currently spends on place-based anti-poverty efforts. States would be invited to compete for the funds by showing how they would spark reforms to support tailored metro-level strategies and give a lift to families afflicted by poverty.

The idea is ingenious -- rather than some bureaucratic fix, getting states to think afresh about their role and capacity, providing incentives to merge compatible programs. And then using the power of competition so that states actually move to create and support new metrowide forms of organizations and coalitions -- a way to pull towns, cities, agencies and other partners together to face and alleviate growing poverty we now know is even greater in suburbs than in cities.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.