Does the Suburbanization of Poverty Mean the War on Poverty Failed?

On the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s State of the Union speech announcing a “War on Poverty,” pundits and analysts are in full swing, judging the war to have been a qualified success, an outright failure, or something in between. The current official measure—15 percent of the population, or 46 million people, living below the federal poverty line—suggests, at best, a mixed result over the past five decades.

Alongside this stubbornly high rate, the geography of poverty has changed dramatically in America. In his 1964 address, Johnson spoke about the need to pursue poverty “in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations…in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.” But today, the suburbs are home to more than one-third of the nation’s poor (up from less than one-quarter in 1970), and 3 million more poor individuals live in suburbs than in cities. Given these statistics, some might be tempted to conclude that the War on Poverty has failed.

However, this would paint our nation’s anti-poverty efforts with far too broad a brush. After all, the War on Poverty laid the foundation for what, today, remain key pillars in the nation’s anti-poverty arsenal—from Medicaid and Medicare to food stampsNew research shows how these safety net programs have alleviated poverty for millions of people, especially in recent years as economic recession and growing low-wage jobs have left many families struggling to make ends meet. Those policies, and others adopted in their wake (e.g., the Earned Income Tax Credit), help society meet the challenges of poverty wherever they occur—in suburbs, cities, small towns, and rural areas.

Beyond these initiatives, however, the War on Poverty also recognized that place matters in shaping individuals’ access to opportunity. It ushered in a number of initiatives that sought to grapple with poverty in distressed communities. Some, like Title I, worked to improve economic conditions in those places. Others, like Community Action Agencies, Head Start, and Community Health Centers, focused on delivering safety net and work support services in high-need areas. Still others, like the Fair Housing Act, sought to open up residential opportunities for low-income and minority residents in better-off areas.

In Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, we estimated that, five decades on from Johnson’s call to action, the federal government runs 81 place-based anti-poverty programs spread across 10 different agencies, investing $82 billion annually as of 2012. By and large, these programs were built to address the landscape of distress described in Johnson’s speech, targeting entrenched urban and rural poverty. Many have proven inflexible and slow to adapt to suburban needs. The infrastructure, access points, and local expertise and political will on which the success of these programs relies simply do not exist in many suburbs today. “Neighborhood economic development” doesn’t work very well in areas that don’t have any economic developers—or actual neighborhoods, for that matter.

There are many lessons to be learned from the successes and failures of these place-based policies since the War on Poverty began. Among the clearest is that we can’t rely on 50-year-old architecture to succeed in addressing the broader reach and scale of today’s need, particularly in a resource-constrained environment. Moreover, the suburbanization of poverty reflects the suburbanization of the American economy writ large, and a structural shift that has failed to produce sufficient numbers of good-paying jobs that lift workers and families out of poverty. The next War on Poverty must arm regional institutions that work across urban and suburban lines to grow more and better jobs.

Without waiting for Washington, local and regional leaders across the country are modeling innovative strategies and finding more scaled, collaborative, and strategically funded ways to address the challenges of poverty region-wide.  By building on early successes in metro areas like Chicago and Seattle, local leaders can lift up the strategies that work—not only in terms of creating better access to education, services, and jobs for low-income residents and communities in the short run, but in creating better economic opportunities within struggling communities (whether urban or suburban) in the long run.

But these leaders shouldn’t go it alone. The federal government must also modernize its place-based approach, providing the support and incentives to help confront poverty at the metropolitan, regional scale of the economy. Failing to update policy and practice risks recreating in suburbs the challenges of concentrated disadvantage that continue to plague many cities and rural communities.

The 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty is not just a time to reflect on what has, or has not, been accomplished in the last five decades. It is also an opportunity to look forward and plan for where we want to be 50 years from now. President Johnson, to his credit, foresaw this need. Four months after his State of the Union Address in 1964, he delivered commencement remarks at the University of Michigan. There, he described the challenge of the next half century as the building of a Great Society, one that “is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed.”