President Obama's State of the Union Address in January was the highest-profile moment of post-Recession recovery bluster. As Obama noted in soaring rhetoric, "we've seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years." And more than the actual signs of recovery, national fist-pumping has sent a resounding signal that the country is in full-on comeback mode.
But there is a problem fraying the edges of the tapestry that the president weaves. As inequality widens at the weakening core of American prosperity, the new face of poverty has become less the inner-city model and instead a more haunting vision: crumbling satellite towns and deserted subdivisions. Those left behind in the shattered dreams of sprawl and those who have been poor for generations have joined together in exodus.
The recession isn't over. It just moved to the suburbs.
The research in a landmark Brookings report paints a picture of a rapidly changing paradigm of American poverty. While suburban poverty rates have not yet surpassed national averages, suburban poverty has still grown at a rate since 2000 that is higher than that of the cities they surround, to the point where poor populations in metropolitan areas are now more likely to live in suburbs than in city centers.
The most important shift has been that of concentrated poverty in the suburbs (concentrated poverty and the affected distressed neighborhoods are hallmarks of generational disadvantages). Almost 40 percent of all poor individuals in suburban areas live in high poverty and distressed areas, up by 13 percent since 2000. Many media reports in response to the Brookings work have a clear and ominous message: that the entire way we think about poverty is about to be redefined.
But the true meaning behind the findings is more complicated. While those reports often either give broad overviews or micro-accounts of metropolitan milieus, the missing element in the conversation about suburban poverty is the acknowledgement that broad definitions of "suburbs" are less concrete than they seem. The fragmented husks of depopulated suburbs in the post-industrial Rust Belt don't look at all like the near-rural satellite towns in the expanding amoebas of Sun Belt quasi-city-states, nor do they all resemble the growing post-gentrification landing zones of displaced urban families in the Northeast. Most of what can be discerned about the meaningfulness of these area definitions is that they represent places that are connected to cities, but are distant from the urban cores.
Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America and a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, discussed the diversity inherent in the definition of suburbs. "There's no one definition of suburb," Kneebone stresses. "In the national consciousness that brings to mind images of the sort of Leave It To Beaver picture of suburbia. I think suburbs have always been more diverse than that, and I think the work that we do has helped make that clear."
Brookings' working definition starts with Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), which are Census definitions based around cities and regional labor markets. Within those MSAs, Brookings researchers identify primary cities and label the areas outside of MSAs as suburbs. Essentially, a suburb is an area that immediately surround a city and includes a large swath of residential property.
One of the places that the Brookings project highlights is the Greensboro-High Point area in North Carolina. This is one area where the neat pop-culture definitions of "suburban" falls flat. Many of the places in Rockingham, and surrounding the metropolitan centers of Greensboro and High Point in the state's once-booming center of textile manufacturing, look more rural than anything else.
According to Dr. Andrew Brod, a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Business and Economic Research at University of North Carolina-Greensboro, this area is not easily defined. All of the areas in the counties surrounding the urban centers are, by definition, "suburbs," which in Greensboro-High Point's case includes several towns and rural districts. "Suburban in this context means not only true suburbs, but entirely rural areas in surrounding counties" Brod says. "We're talking about farmland. Mill towns. Places that would look to anyone like the small-town South."
But even though the small single-stop towns and farmland dotting the highways between and around Greensboro and High Point look more rural than suburban, they are still deeply connected to the city centers and have been facing the issue of rising poverty. Dr. Brod sees the trend as a now-endemic effect of the recession and of a changing economic climate in the state of North Carolina. Generational unemployment caused by the collapse of textile manufacturing in North Carolina, once the manufacturing capital of America, met head-on with the effects of the Great Recession.
"It didn't take that much to pull them into poverty" Brod says. "Distressed rural-suburban economies even before the recession with an extremely poor recovery have created huge problems for a lot of families in NC."
A five-hour drive north from the uppermost reaches of the Greensboro-High Point area in Eden—over a long, lonely stretch of wooded highways and tobacco fields—leads to an enclave of suburban poverty that looks entirely different: that of the areas surrounding Washington, D.C.
The most well-known and well-studied area of suburban poverty is Prince George's County, Maryland. The towns and interstitial areas of "PG County," as it is known in the area, are urban or semi-urban areas with strong ties to their larger neighbor, D.C. Many of the neighborhoods that make up PG County are essentially extended communities of Washington, connected with the same transit arteries as the city proper. Even without many of the neat subdivisions, Prince George's County is still easily recognizable as a suburb. But even as the city to which it is attached has itself begun to recover post-recession, the suburb has suffered.
According to Kneebone, "in the DC metro area, there were already more poor in the suburbs, and there was still a big shift post-recession." Through displacement from the city, housing crashes, and sustained unemployment in the suburbs, PG County has become poorer and more segregated. The wealth of African-Americans in the county has plummeted relative to that of whites, and property values have dropped relative to the city of Washington and even relative to other whiter suburbs in the area. In the case of D.C.'s suburbs, the racial elements and the push-and-pull with gentrification play a role in the rise of suburban poverty.
O. Xavier Hixon, Interim President and CEO of the United Communities Against Poverty in Prince George's County, believes the Brookings data reflects what he sees on the ground in his work in anti-poverty efforts. According Hixon, the "homeless and people below poverty population basically tripled" over the past few years, and he struggles to accommodate UCAP's poor and homeless target population without state funding commensurate with that increase. Hixon believes that lack of jobs and a safety net for people near poverty has led to the increase. "The unfortunate is that we need to be more mindful that we need to have an infrastructure," says Hixon. "We need it for the middle class, lower middle class, and the just-above poverty class."
Louis Graham, a former long-time resident of D.C. and transplant from North Carolina, was one of the casualties of the wave of joblessness and displacement from the city that was associated with the increase of poverty in PG County. "I had a good job, a few jobs," says Graham. "When I had to move out to Capitol Heights [a town in PG County], I didn't have nothing anymore. When I finally moved back home, I had been up there for forty years and left as broke as I drove up."
Regardless of the definition, many areas just beyond the edges of cities seem to be caught in a now-structural dynamic of generational, concentrated poverty. Trapped between the push of rising city costs, the pull of cheaper suburban life, rising inequality, and the erasure of opportunity for lower-working-class families, low-income earners are becoming stuck in distant suburbs, in what amounts to an inversion of the American suburban dream. These contributing factors were likely in place on some scale before the Great Recession, but according to Kneebone were likely "kicked into overdrive and cemented" by the recession's effects.
There are common themes in these communities. Many are small communities with highly fragmented political structures that don't match up with real population or service boundaries. Low-income families in these places often suffer at the crumbling edges of city transit and face significant barriers to all services. As Ms. Kneebone noted, "these communities are often just not equipped to meet the needs of the poor." And as the safety nets in these areas continue to struggle, it is very difficult to not imagine that life may continue on this way for some time, even now that the Great Recession has ostensibly become the Great Recovery.
But these communities are also unique and distinct places with their own individual character. Solutions to combat poverty stemming from the manufacturing collapse in county areas surrounding Greensboro are likely very different than the strategies needed to burst pockets of concentrated poverty and increase transit access in the poorer, segregated semi-urban areas surrounding D.C.
From East Point to Shaolin, the trend of rising suburban poverty has changed entire communities. The combination of existing forces in urbanization, the housing crisis, Recession-created unemployment, and the subsequent inequitable recovery strategies have created environments where city hinterlands and inner-ring suburban neighborhoods have become depleted, even as the ejecta of impoverished families are flung back to them. And this will likely become a feature of America that won't be easily thwarted. The Recession never ended—it just moved down the street.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]