The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 13, 2011

Does this look like suburbanization to you?

September 13, 2011

Poverty rose in metropolitan Chicago by 1.5 percentage points between 2000 and 2007/09, fell in Los Angeles by about as much, and dropped by a half-point in New York. These small variations added up to big differences in poverty levels for a few places, Census estimates show. But are the places with poverty growth “suburbs” as most people think of them?

Chicago has long served as a reference point in urban studies. Recent reports on poverty’s growth in suburbs and small cities south of Chicago on both sides of the Illinois-Indiana border have prompted speculation that suburbanizing poverty is a national phenomenon. Exemplar or not, the city’s poverty rate increased from 19.6% to 20.7% in the early 2000s as its population decreased and the number of poor rose. Meanwhile, poverty rates in Harvey (IL) and East Chicago (IN) now exceed 30% city-wide, and Gary (IN), Chicago Heights (IL), and Hammond (IN) also have poverty rates above 20 percent. These rates are several percentage points higher than the highest in the metro area in 2000. In short, these small to medium-sized cities face huge challenges grappling with rising poverty rates, and they were strapped even before the jump. (See Scott Allard’s persuasive writing on these challenges.)

The expansive New York metropolitan area presents a more acute example of how poverty “changed places” in the 2000s. Opposite from Chicago, New York City lost poor people as its population grew, driving its poverty rate down from 21.3 to 18.5 percent. Meanwhile, a string of small to medium-sized cities in New Jersey—Passaic, Paterson, New Brunswick, Newark, and East Orange—saw their poverty rates climb above 20 percent. Perth Amboy and Union City also have poverty rates over New York City’s.

With its falling metro poverty rate, Los Angeles presents yet another picture of poverty’s shifting geography. The small to medium-sized cities and unincorporated areas in South Central LA—Huntington Park, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Compton, Bell, and Maywood—all have poverty rates between 20 and 25 percent, even though rates in these long-poor enclaves generally fell in the early 2000s. So did the rates of both L.A. itself and Long Beach. But the far-fringe cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, in the high desert over 60 miles from downtown L.A., both had appreciable upticks in poverty. This pattern repeated itself in the neighboring Riverside-San Bernardino metro area, where poverty rates fell in the core cities but rose in the exurban desert cities of Hesperia, Apple Valley, Victorville, and Barstow, north of the San Bernardino Mountains an hour or two from Riverside.

Calling any of these metro trends “suburbanizing poverty” is at least a little misleading. Most people wouldn’t have called a move to Gary, Hammond, Passaic, Paterson, or Newark “suburbanization” even in the 1950s—never mind today. These places have struggled with disinvestment, population flight, and neighborhood distress for decades. And LA’s rising poverty hot spots, though suburban in some respects, are really exurbs perched at the edge of the Mojave desert, without good mass transit and over an hour from the region’s major job centers.

If suburbanization means moving to opportunity, none of these three metro areas gives us as much reason for celebration as for concern.

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