The Landscape of Recession: Unemployment and Safety Net Services Across Urban and Suburban America

Emily Garr
Robert Ford
Emily Garr U.S. Ambassador to Algeria (ret.) - U.S. State Department

March 31, 2011

Three years after the Great Recession began in December 2007, 6.6 million people have been added to the ranks of the unemployed, and demand for assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) is at a record high. Although the U.S. economy officially entered its recovery nearly twenty months ago, in July of 2009, job growth continues to be slow and uneven.  The unemployment rate remains high at nearly 9 percent—though this rate varies considerably across the country.

This paper, the third and final analysis in the Landscape of Recession series, tracks leading indicators of poverty and need across cities and their surrounding suburbs. Specifically, this edition assesses unemployment trends by community type from the beginning of the recession (officially December 2007) through December 2010. It also analyzes trends among food stamp recipients, between July 2007 and July 2010, the most recent county-level data available.  These indicators offer an initial glimpse of how poverty might trend in 2010, following two years of widespread, but uneven, increases in poverty across city and suburban communities.

  • Between December 2007 and December 2010, 99 large metro areas accounted for more than two-thirds of the net increase nationwide in the unemployed population, with the bulk of those increases concentrated in suburbs. During that time, the number of unemployed in suburbs rose by 3.1 million, compared to 1.5 million in cities.  By December 2010, the suburban unemployment rate trailed the city rate by less than one percentage point (8.9 percent in suburbs versus 9.8 percent in cities).

  • Metro areas in the interior West like Las Vegas, Stockton, Fresno, and Riverside experienced the highest increases in unemployment in the three-year period since the recession began. In these metro areas, unemployment rates in both cities and suburbs increased by more than 7 percentage points.  In the year from December 2009 to December 2010, metropolitan unemployment rates fell in every broad U.S. region except the West.

  • Among suburban communities, higher-density and mature suburbs experienced the greatest growth in their unemployed populations .  Older, denser suburbs saw their jobless populations more than double in the three years following the start of the recession.  By December 2010, the unemployment rate in mature suburbs had surpassed the traditionally higher rates in low-density exurban communities (9.0 versus 8.9 percent).

  • Suburban counties were home to a growing share of the nation’s SNAP recipients between July 2007 and July 2010, but urban counties still account for more than 60 percent of metropolitan SNAP receipt.  Suburban counties added 3.2 million SNAP recipients—an increase of 73 percent compared to 61 percent in urban counties. Faster enrollment gains in suburbs raised their share of metropolitan SNAP recipients from 36 percent in 2007 to 38 percent in 2010.

Twenty months following the official start of economic recovery, metropolitan communities across the country find themselves still struggling with high levels of unemployment and relying increasingly on services like SNAP. The demand for jobs and a social safety net—evident across cities and suburbs alike—is widespread, and will necessitate metropolitan-scale coordination to balance social and economic needs as the recovery progresses.

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