Two Steps Back: City and Suburban Poverty Trends 1999-2005

Alan Berube and
Alan Berube Interim Vice President and Director - Brookings Metro

Elizabeth Kneebone
Elizabeth Kneebone
Elizabeth Kneebone Former Nonresident Senior Fellow

December 1, 2006

An analysis of poverty in cities and suburbs of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, based on data from the 2005 American Community Survey and Census 2000, indicates that:

In 1999 large cities and their suburbs had nearly equal numbers of poor individuals, but by 2005 the suburban poor outnumbered their city counterparts by at least 1 million. Still, the percentage of all people in poverty rose in both cities and suburbs between 1999 and 2005, following the national trend. In 2005, the poverty rate in large cities (18.8 percent) was twice as high as in suburbs (9.4 percent).

Poverty rates rose significantly in Midwestern and Southern metropolitan areas, but remained steady in the West and Northeast. In the Midwest, where job losses were concentrated in the first half of the decade, poverty rates rose in 18 of 20 metropolitan areas. In the West, by contrast, only seven of 23 metro areas experienced poverty rate increases, and poverty actually fell in five. 

Nearly half of large cities nationwide saw a significant rise in their poverty rates, versus about one-third of their suburbs. Six of the ten cities with the largest povertyrate increases were located in the Midwest, including Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, and Columbus. New York City and the Greater Los Angeles area actually experienced small poverty-rate declines over this period.

In cities and suburbs where overall poverty rates rose from 1999 to 2005, child poverty rates rose faster. In Midwestern and Southern cities, child poverty rates were up by at least 3 percentage points on average. The cities and suburbs of Houston, Dallas, and Cleveland ranked among those experiencing the greatest increases in child poverty during this period.

Economic conditions during the early 2000s brought a rise in poverty nationwide and in many cities and suburbs. Regional impacts, however, have been uneven. These findings emphasize that federal and state labor market supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit and unemployment insurance can act as powerful tools for helping families suffering the effects of economic downturns. At the local level, the enduring social and fiscal challenges for cities that stem from high poverty are increasingly shared by their suburbs. Public and private efforts that give growing suburban poor populations access to economically integrated neighborhoods and in-work supports could enhance economic security and mobility for a significant number of Americans.