The blog of the Urban Institute
August 3, 2011

When Poverty Grows in the Metro, it Grows in Both Cities and Suburbs

August 3, 2011

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the suburbanization of poverty. Some attribute this change to policies aimed at making low-income people more mobile, including HOPE VI and housing choice vouchers. Sometimes, the list of forces behind suburban poverty growth extends to displacement of low-income people from revitalized or gentrified central-city neighborhoods.

Like the rebound of concentrated poverty in metropolitan America since 2000, however, suburban poverty growth reflects spreading metropolitan poverty more than urban policy, housing policy, or housing demand in a few neighborhoods. A city in a metro area where poverty grew in the 2000s had less than one chance in ten of avoiding some poverty growth. That rate held regardless of city size, so being a central city or large city certainly didn’t protect jurisdictions from poverty growth. This same pattern holds in other jurisdiction types. More than nine out of ten unincorporated counties and townships, regardless of their population, also saw poverty grow if their metro area’s poverty rate was rising. Since poverty grew in 809 of the nation’s 938 metro and micropolitan areas in the 2000s, both the suburbanization and the urbanization of poverty were  facts of life throughout America in the 2000s.

Take Detroit. Most of its suburbs saw poverty growth between 2000 and 2007; only a handful of small affluent enclaves and exurbs didn’t. The City of Detroit, however, added over 50,000 poor residents in the 2000s even as its population fell by over 35,000. Poverty also grew in every other large city in the region, including Warren, Sterling Heights, and Livonia, all cities over 100,000 residents. All this occurred against a backdrop of widespread population decline—that is, the number of people in poverty grew, as the total population fell.

The biggest single increase in urban poverty in the early 2000s didn’t happen in Detroit, however, but in Houston, which added over 60,000 people in poverty between 2000 and 2007 as its metro area’s poverty rate grew by five percentage points. Considering the metro area’s huge population increase and its reputation for a vibrant economy, this growth in poverty may come as a surprise.  More recent Census estimates now show that by 2009, the number of Houston city residents in poverty had grown to nearly 460,000: almost 200,000 more people than in 2000. Galveston, meanwhile, lost poor people to evacuation in the wake of Hurricane Ike, echoing the much higher magnitude of depopulation and displacement of the poor from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But again, the other big cities in the Houston metro area—even affluent Sugar Land—have seen poverty increase in both absolute and percent terms since the decade began.

Other central cities that saw populations of the poor soar between 2000 and 2007 included Dallas, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Columbus, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso. All have their own stories, but they differ from the one I’ll return to in a future blog: suburban poverty in America’s three largest metro areas.


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Frightening that out of the ten cities cited, six were in Texas. Curious what state policies and demographic trends led to this situation.
Perhaps because many former residents of New Orleans moved to Houston and other Texas cities after Katrina?
My initial reaction, too, was that a large portion of the increase in poverty in Houston could be attributed to people moving to Houston after Katrina and Rita. To prove/disprove this idea, it would be helpful to see what the increase in poverty was 2000 - 2004 and then 2004 - 2005 or 2006 since that is when people arrived. I would be curious, too, to see the actual breakdown of rate of poverty of people who moved after Katrina and Rita, and the possible increase in poverty even among those groups as they had difficulty finding employment, etc. in Houston. As for the other Texas cities growing in poverty, I think this data goes hand-in-hand with the recent national coverage about the large portion of new jobs in Texas being very low-wage jobs and the compounding cuts to mental health care and social supports through the Texas legislature during this period. Thanks for taking on this important work!
Interesting question about the role of Katrina. Between 100,000 and 150,000 New Orleanians were displaced to Houston, I think, but many of these were not below poverty and some returned to New Orleans. But we'll take a look at the numbers and get back to this next time.