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Desperately Seeking a Bloomberg for the ‘Burbs

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is using $30 million of his own money—and a matching gift from George Soros—to help fund a new program aimed at addressing the vast socio-economic disparities between New York City’s young white men and those who are black or Latino. At a time when more people are out of work and municipal budgets are stretched thin, private philanthropy is increasingly important. 

But it’s not just cities that need this kind of help.  Poor people are more likely to live in suburbs now than in cities.  

And poverty isn’t the only thing changing the suburbs. Immigration has also become more dispersed, both to new metropolitan areas and, within them, to suburbs in addition to cities. By 2005, in fact, more immigrants lived in the suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas than in their primary cities.

These two trends have intersected so that now half of all poor immigrants live in the suburbs, as described in our report published last week. Just as immigrants on the whole have followed natives to the suburbs, so have the foreign-born poor followed the native-born poor to these areas. As a result, suburban areas with little or no experience with either immigration or poverty now face complex and unfamiliar public policy challenges. 

Traditional anti-poverty programs have focused on central cities, and the suburban infrastructure including local governments, non profits, and private funders have not caught up with the shifting geography of poverty and immigration. In places with little prior history of immigration, service agencies sometimes struggle to help to new influxes of immigrants in diverse languages, and demand for English language classes is often much higher than supply. Schools, too, may have limited resources, both fiscal and human, to adapt to a rapidly increasing student body with limited English proficiency. 

Amid strained budgets, support for these and additional services related to public safety or public health may be hard to come by. Suburban social safety nets already involve dollars stretched across larger areas than their counterparts in cities.

Take Atlanta. The number of poor living in Atlanta’s suburbs increased by more than 300,000 between 2000 and 2009, more than any other suburban area in the country. (Seventy-three percent of that growth came from the native-born population, but immigrants in Atlanta’s suburbs are almost twice as likely as natives to be poor.) Despite this high growth in suburban poverty, Atlanta-based philanthropies give relatively little in the way of grant dollars to suburban service providers.

That’s one place where a Bloomberg for the ‘burbs would come in handy.

  • Audrey Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, U.S. immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. She has written extensively on U.S. immigration trends, including immigrant integration, undocumented migration, naturalization and citizenship, and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States.

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