The changing geography of US poverty

Editor's Note:

Testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, Subcommittee on Human Resources, February 15, 2017

Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Davis, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the invitation to appear before you today. In my testimony, I will provide information on the changing geography of poverty in the United States (including the rapid rise of poverty outside of urban and rural communities in recent years), key factors that have driven these shifts as well as challenges raised by them, and implications for efforts to effectively address poverty and promote opportunity across different kinds of communities.

While these issues have been the subject of my research at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, the views expressed in this testimony are my own. The Brookings Institution does not take institutional positions on policy issues.

Recent Trends

The number of people living below the federal poverty line in the United States has only recently begun to subside from the historic highs reached in the wake of the Great Recession. In 2015, the most recent year for which we have data, 43.1 million people (or 13.5 percent of the population) were poor. Even after years of a sustained economic expansion, that number remains 5.8 million higher than before the recession began in 2007, and 11.5 million more than in 2000.

Poverty in the United States has long been associated with large urban centers or rural communities, where it has historically been most concentrated. As poverty grew in the 2000s, it continued to climb in those places: Both large cities and rural counties experienced an uptick in their poor populations of roughly 20 percent between 2000 and 2015 (see chart).1 But the rapid rise of poverty in the 2000s touched a broad swath of communities across the country, moving well beyond its historic homes.

Between 2000 and 2015, the poor population in smaller metropolitan areas grew at double the pace of the urban and rural poor populations, outstripped only by poverty’s growth in the nation’s suburbs. Suburbs in the country’s largest metro areas saw the number of residents living below the poverty line grow by 57 percent between 2000 and 2015. All together, suburbs accounted for nearly half (48 percent) of the total national increase in the poor population over that time period.2

These increases pushed the poverty rate up by roughly 3 percentage points in suburbs and small metro areas between 2000 and 2015, compared to a 2 percentage-point uptick in both cities and rural counties. Even with these increases, poverty rates in urban and rural areas remained higher on average than elsewhere: The 2015 poverty rate was 19.6 percent in large cities, 17.2 percent in rural areas, 16 percent in small metro areas, and 11.2 percent in the suburbs.

However, the rapid pace of growth in the suburban poor population during the 2000s fueled a significant “tipping point” in the geography of the nation’s poor. For the first time, suburbs became home to more poor residents than cities. In 2015, 16 million poor people lived in the suburbs, outnumbering the poor population in cities by more than 3 million, small metro areas by more than 6 million, and rural areas by more than 8 million.

Given the (literal) space that suburbs occupy, bridging urban and rural America, some of the challenges raised by the growth of poverty in the suburbs may find parallels in urban areas (e.g., the growing prevalence of distressed neighborhoods) or in rural communities (e.g., the complexities of bringing services to a population spread over greater distances), and some may be unique (e.g., perceptions of affluence that complicate responses to growing poverty). Because poverty in the suburbs, at least at these levels, is a newer phenomenon, much of the remainder of this testimony will focus on exploring the recent and rapid rise of suburban poverty. (Note that, while much of the research summarized below has largely focused on cities and suburbs within the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, many of the same drivers, challenges, and implications related to growing suburban poverty also apply in the small metro area context.)

The Broad Reach of Suburban Poverty

A key feature of the growth of suburban poverty in the 2000s is that it was not isolated to particular regions or parts of the country. Almost every major metro area experienced a significant increase in the suburban poor population between 2000 and 2015, and two-thirds of those regions now find the majority of the poor population in the suburbs. Some of the steepest upticks occurred in fast-growing metro areas in the Sun Belt and Intermountain West, like the Cape Coral (151 percent), Austin (129 percent), Atlanta (126 percent), and Las Vegas (139 percent) metro areas, each of which saw its suburban poor population more than double.

Many older, historically manufacturing-oriented regions in the Midwest also experienced above-average increases in their suburban poor populations, including metro Detroit (87 percent), Chicago (84 percent), and Cleveland (62 percent). While those regions have long been associated with the challenges of urban poverty, each now counts more poor residents outside their central cities than in them.

Relatively strong regional economies like the Washington, DC and Seattle metro areas also shared in these trends, posting above-average upticks in the number of suburban residents living in poverty between 2000 and 2015 (66 and 63 percent, respectively).

Nor was this trend confined to older, distressed inner-ring suburbs that have a longer history of poverty. Poverty also grew in farther out suburbs, in bedroom communities, traditionally more affluent communities, and in exurban communities on the metropolitan fringe, underscoring the increasing reach of poverty into a broader array of places.3

Characteristics of the Urban and Suburban Poor

The biggest difference between the urban and suburban poor populations in the nation’s largest metro areas lies in their racial and ethnic makeup. Non-Hispanic whites account for 44 percent of the poor population in suburbs, compared to just 24 percent in big cities. That gap largely reflects differences in the overall racial and ethnic composition of cities and suburbs, although that has been changing over time as people of color, including poor people of color, have suburbanized at a faster clip. Still, the poor white population remains the most suburbanized among major racial and ethnic groups: 70 percent of poor whites in the nation’s largest metro areas live in the suburbs compared to 52 percent of poor Asians, 47 percent of poor Hispanics, and 41 percent of poor African Americans.

The suburban poor are also more likely to own their own home than their urban counterparts (36 versus 20 percent, respectively). Notwithstanding those differences, the urban and suburban poor population is quite similar. Most poor families are working families (roughly two-thirds in both cities and suburbs). Similar shares of individuals have a disability (roughly 15 percent in both cases). The suburban poor skew slightly older—in part because poor seniors are slightly more suburbanized on average—but more than a third of the poor in both cities and suburbs are children. A striking share of the poor lives in deep poverty (less than half the federal poverty line) in both cities (46 percent) and suburbs (44 percent).4

Growing Concentrations of Poverty

Differences are less striking across the urban and suburban poor populations as a whole than they are across neighborhoods at different levels of poverty, regardless of where they are located. Poor neighborhoods tend to cluster disadvantages that create a drag on upward mobility and the long-term prospects of residents getting out of poverty over time.5

That is especially concerning because, after making gains in the 1990s toward de-concentrating poverty (i.e., reducing the number of very poor neighborhoods and the share of the poor living in them), the 2000s marked a rapid re-emergence of concentrated disadvantage, particularly in the post-recession period, that essentially erased earlier progress.6

The number of extremely poor neighborhoods (census tracts with poverty rates of 40 percent or more) in the United States more than doubled between 2000 and 2010-14, as did the share of poor residents living in them. While concentrated poverty (i.e., the share of poor residents living in extremely poor neighborhoods) historically has been a largely urban challenge, the fastest growing concentrations of poverty in the 2000s emerged beyond the urban core. Suburbs saw the number of poor residents living in distressed neighborhoods grow by 188 percent, ahead of small metro areas (172 percent), rural communities (103 percent), and cities (80 percent).

Urban residents remain disproportionately likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty: In 2010-14, cities posted a concentrated poverty rate of 25.5 percent, compared to 13.7 percent in small metro areas, and 7.1 percent in both suburbs and rural communities. But the pace of growth in concentrated disadvantage, and the rapid emergence of high-poverty neighborhoods, outside of city centers underscores the significant shifts and expansions the map of poverty in the United States has undergone in recent years, and the increasingly shared challenge it represents.


The growth of poverty in the suburbs reflects a combination of contributing factors that saw both low-income individuals and families move to the suburbs and more long-time suburban residents fall into poverty over time. These factors include:

No one factor alone was responsible for the widespread growth of poverty in the suburbs. While the multiple dynamics described above intersect in different ways depending on the community, they also underscore the complex array of factors that work together to shape both poverty’s trajectory and its distribution across places.


The rapidly changing geography of poverty begs the question: is the rise of poverty in the suburbs necessarily a bad thing? Popular perceptions of suburbia would suggest that being poor in the suburbs affords access to the kind of opportunities—schools, jobs, networks—that provide a better platform for poor residents to eventually work their way out of poverty. (Indeed past public policies—like the Moving to Opportunity experiment—have been premised on exactly that assumption.)

But the answer to that question is: it depends. America’s suburbs are a diverse collection of places that, as the recent increases in concentrated poverty might suggest, do not uniformly offer access to such opportunities. And whether affluent, middle class, blue collar, or distressed, or whether they fall in the urbanized inner-ring or the more rural exurban fringe, many of the suburbs that experienced the steepest upticks in poverty in recent years are now dealing with it at levels they were not built, nor are they now equipped, to address.

Some of the first-order challenges poor families and individuals in the suburbs face relate directly to those gaps in infrastructure, support systems, and capacity, including:

A number of additional factors make it difficult to bridge the gaps outlined above to effectively address the geographic scale and reach of poverty today, including:

Even many anti-poverty or opportunity-oriented programs typically thought of as “people-based” are place-based in practice because they depend on “bricks and mortar” delivery models. Think of subsidized childcare or job training programs. The funds for these types of programs often are allocated in ways that favor denser, urban settings with higher poverty rates. The lack of nonprofit and local government capacity in many suburban communities can mean that many eligible suburban residents end up missing out on important benefits because they are not available in or reasonably near their community.


As more places deal with poverty at levels not seen before, particularly suburbs and smaller metropolitan areas where its presence may be newer, it is unrealistic to expect these communities to replicate from whole cloth everything cities or rural communities have done over multiple decades to address poverty. Not only would that take too long given the pressing need, there simply are not enough public or private resources to do so (and even if there were, creating duplicative services and systems in every community would not be an efficient use of them). Nor is the recognition of poverty’s broader reach today meant to trigger an “us-versus-them,” zero-sum resource competition with urban and rural communities that have long struggled with poverty and continue to do so. Instead, today’s geography of poverty calls for more crosscutting and responsive approaches that work at a more effective scale to address poverty in the context of place.

Examples of what these approaches could look like already exist in communities across the country, having emerged from local and regional innovation and leadership. In some cases, organizations that already operate at a larger geographic and programmatic scale are taking the lead. With their ability to work across different types of communities and issue areas and weave together a diverse range of funding sources, these entities—whether high-performing multifaceted social service providers like Neighborhood Centers in metropolitan Houston or high-capacity community development financial institutions like The Reinvestment Fund on the East Coast or IFF in the Midwest—can often leverage their scale and range of expertise to fill capacity gaps in underserved communities, whether urban, suburban, or rural.

Beyond these types of entities, many communities across the country are finding ways to achieve scale through collaboration, which can take several forms. These collaborative models may bring together:

Regardless of the mix of entities or jurisdictions, effective collaborative models tend to have a “quarterback” or “backbone” entity that provides the staff capacity and expertise to organize, maintain, and implement on the collaborative goals.

But these innovators and quarterbacks face a number of challenges as they try to make the often fragmented and inflexible anti-poverty policy and funding landscape work in new ways for a broader geography of need. Difficulties in standing up these models can include managing burdensome red tape and the increased administrative strain of trying to work across multiple programs that lack alignment in their reporting requirements; pushing up against administrative practices or rules that frustrate efforts to collaborate across jurisdictions; and confronting a lack of dedicated support for quarterback capacity building and support.

If federal policymakers adopted a few common principles when making decisions around anti-poverty/pro-opportunity policies, and especially those that are targeted to or delivered in places, it could help better align resources and accelerate the adoption of more effectively scaled solutions that work across different kinds of communities to connect residents to economic opportunity. Federal policy could:


  1. For the purposes of this analysis, “cities” refer to primary cities in the nation’s 100 most populous metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). A primary city is defined as the first named city in the official MSA title and any other city in the MSA name that has a population of 100,000 or more, which means a region could have between one and three primary cities. The suburbs are defined as the remainder of the region within the MSA but outside of the primary city or cities. Small metro areas comprise all other MSAs outside the top 100, and rural areas include all counties that are not a part of an MSA.
  2. For an analysis of how these geographic trends map to different congressional districts, see: Elizabeth Kneebone, “Poverty Crosses Party Line,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2016) https://www.brookings.edu/research/poverty-crosses-party-lines/#AL.
  3. For a detailed discussion of the types of suburban communities that experienced increases in poverty, see Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2013).
  4. Ibid.
  5. See, e.g., Elizabeth Kneebone, Carey Nadeau, and Alan Berube, “The Re-Emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000s” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2011).
  6. Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes, “U.S. Concentrated Poverty in the Wake of the Great Recession,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2016).
  7. Roberto Suro, Jill Wilson, and Audrey Singer, “Immigration and Poverty in America’s Suburbs,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2011).
  8. Kenya Covington, Lance Freeman, and Michael Stoll, “The Suburbanization of Housing Choice Voucher Recipients,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2011).
  9. Chris Schildt and others, “The Subprime Crisis in Suburbia: Exploring the Links between Foreclosures and Suburban Poverty,” (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 2013).
  10. Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll, “Job Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2010).
  11. Elizabeth Kneebone, “Job Sprawl Stalls: The Great Recession and Metropolitan Employment Location,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2013).
  12. Emily Garr, “The Landscape of Recession: Unemployment and Safety Net Services Across Urban and Suburban America,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2011).
  13. Kneebone, “Job Sprawl Stalls.”
  14. See https://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_104.htm.
  15. Jane Williams and Alan Berube, “The Metropolitan Geography of Low-Wage Work,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2014).
  16. Adie Tomer and others, “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2011).
  17. Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes, “The Growing Distance Between People and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2015).
  18. Scott W. Allard and Benjamin Roth, “Strained Suburbs: The Social Service Challenges of Rising Suburban Poverty,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2010).
  19. Ibid.
  20. Sarah Reckhow and Margaret Weir, “Building a Stronger Regional Safety Net: Philanthropy's Role,” (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2011).