The blog of the Urban Institute
May 30, 2013

Suburban poverty: let's keep talking about it

May 30, 2013

Kudos to Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone for igniting a new national conversation about poverty and place. Their book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, highlights the fact that more poor people now live in America’s suburbs than in central cities. This comes as a surprise to many and shatters old assumptions about who should care about poverty and where solutions may lie.

Suburban poverty isn’t new, but the latest evidence about its prevalence should dispel outdated stereotypes of distressed (mostly minority) cities surrounded by affluent (mostly white) bedroom suburbs. American metros have been evolving away from this stereotype for decades but our thinking about poverty—and especially about poor communities—hasn’t kept up. Many of the public policies designed to combat poverty deliver help regardless of where people live. But those that target poor places mostly focus on the inner city.

Place still matters. Where we live largely determines where our kids go to school; the length and cost of our commute to work; how safe we can feel on our streets and in our parks; whether there’s a grocery store nearby that sells healthy food at affordable prices; and where we turn for public assistance, employment services, or social supports during tough times. To be effective, strategies for helping poor families stabilize their lives and climb out of poverty must meet them where they live and strengthen the opportunities there.

But that doesn’t mean everything poor people need should be delivered within the boundaries of their neighborhoods. Instead, the places they live and the helping hands nearby should connect to opportunities in the metropolitan economy as a whole. In other words, anti-poverty strategies should be “place conscious” rather than “place based.”

Race still matters too. Berube and Kneebone show that poor suburbanites are remarkably similar to poor people who live in cities. But they differ quite dramatically with respect to race and ethnicity. More than three-quarters of the city poor are people of color, compared with 56 percent of poor suburbanites. And people of color are far more likely than whites to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, most of which are still in cities.

The map below shows how the geography of poverty and race has played out in the Washington, DC region over the past two decades. Even though three-quarters of the region's poor live in the suburbs, poor blacks are much more likely to live in DC than either poor whites or poor Latinos.

Slide the bar to compare 1990, 2000, and the most current data (2005-09). You'll see the growth in suburban poverty, but you’ll also see that the spatial concentration of black poverty remains largely unchanged, while poor whites and Latinos are increasingly scattered across the region's neighborhoods.

In metros across the country, today’s poverty map reflects the legacy of discrimination, legally sanctioned segregation, and racial inequality. So as we develop the next generation of place-conscious antipoverty policies—policies that tackle today’s realities and engage suburbs as well as cities—we must acknowledge that legacy and address the persistent connections between poverty, place, and race.

Berube and Kneebone have gotten people talking about poverty and what to do about it. Let’s keep the conversation going, even though it’s sure to be complex and controversial.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


I applaud your attention to poverty outside of large cities, but want to highlight that much of what may look like suburban poverty in Massachsuetts is actually small city poverty. These small cities are formerly industrial hubs, with dense residential areas, connections to transit and often large immigrant populations. They are home to high levels of poverty, but also to a large segment of working class residents of Massachsuetts. I know this is true for other New England states, but I suspect it is also true for other large portions of the country. While highlighting suburban poverty, we should not lose site of the nuance and granularity of the places outside the big cities. The Boston Fed has a new initiative targetting these cities - the Working Cities Challenge.