Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube have spent over a decade researching poverty. In 2006, they began work on a report and discovered trends that surprised them. In Confronting Suburban Poverty, they explore the whats, whys and meanings of suburban poverty and what it brings to social issues.
We first got into the issue of suburban poverty by accident. Other than having grown up in the suburbs like most Americans our age (Elizabeth around Indianapolis; Alan around Worcester, Massachusetts), neither of us ever really studied suburbia very carefully. And each of us today lives in a big city (Washington, D.C.). But in 2006 we wrote a Brookings report about poverty trends in cities and metropolitan areas in the 2000s. Buried within our analysis was a trend that struck us as noteworthy: by our calculations, there now seemed to be more poor people in metro areas living outside of big cities than within them. We spoke with a lot of people about the report, and they had trouble wrapping their heads around that statistic. Admittedly, we did, too.
As poverty becomes increasingly regional in its scope and reach, it challenges conventional approaches that the nation has taken when dealing with poverty in place. Many of those approaches were shaped when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national War on Poverty in 1964. At that time, poor Americans were most likely to live in inner-city neighborhoods or sparsely populated rural areas. Fifty years later, public perception still largely casts poverty as an urban or rural phenomenon. Poverty rates do remain higher in cities and rural communities than elsewhere. But for three decades the poor population has grown fastest in suburbs.
The changing map of American poverty matters because place matters. It starts with the metropolitan areas, the regional economies that cut across city and suburban lines and drive the national economy. Place intersects with core policy issues central to the long-term health and stability of metropolitan areas and to the economic success of individuals and families— things like housing, transportation, economic and workforce development, and the provision of education, health, and other basic services. Where people live influences the kinds of educational and economic opportunities and the range of public services available to them, as well as what barriers to accessing those opportunities may exist. The country’s deep history of localism means that, within the same metropolitan area, a resident of one community will not necessarily have the same access to good jobs and quality schools, or even basic health and safety services, as a person in another community, whether across the region or right next door.
Perhaps most emblematic of the fast-growing suburban communities that multiplied in the postwar era were the developments built by Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred. In the Levittowns built on Long Island, and outside Philadelphia (in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Willingboro, New Jersey), Levitt and Sons honed their approach to suburban development, using a standardized housing design, preassembled parts, and vertical integration of suppliers to speed production. Regarding these cookie-cutter Cape Cods with a living room, a bathroom, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a yard, Kenneth Jackson observed, “This early Levitt house was as basic to post World War II suburban development as the Model T had been to the automobile. In each case, the actual design features were less important than the fact that they were mass produced and thus priced within reach of the middle class.” Jackson also noted that while Levitt did not invent many of the techniques he employed, the wide publicity of his developments served to popularize his approach. Large builders in metropolitan areas throughout the country—including developers in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Washington— adopted similar methods.
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Confronting Suburban Poverty is available in both hardcover and eBook formats:
Infographic; What’s Driving the Rapid Rise of Poverty in the Suburbs?:
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On May 20, the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings hosted an event marking the release of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, co-authored by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube. Below, you can watch a piece of the event with Elizabeth Kneebone, as she discusses how the landscape of poverty in America has changed.
In the News:
Read The New York Times Op-Ed on Confronting Suburban Poverty in America »