What About Suburban Poverty?

Miss Peters pointed to the blackboard explaining the geography laid before the classroom: Elm Street, Main Street, and Town Hall. Mary Sue inquired, “What’s outside of Pleasantville? What’s at the end of Main Street?” A clearly befuddled Miss Peters responded simply, “Oh, Mary Sue. You should know the answer to that. The end of Main Street is just the beginning again.”

As can be seen in the simple -  if not naive - exchange above, the film Pleasantville depicts a 1950s suburban America chimera where everything seems just right. Mary Sue’s questions challenge what is known by inquiring into what could be. Since the invention of the automobile, Americans have been exploring and establishing livelihoods beyond Main Street. Henry Ford saw the nascent suburb as an answer to urban ills declaring, “We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city.”

For many urbanites, leaving the city represents mobility and, in turn, a step towards the sometimes opaque American dream. Belief in the American dream is as common as thinking a successive generation should have more opportunity, and as codified as the Declaration of Independence credo that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. The pursuit of happiness is often equated with the pursuit of upward mobility, which has largely resulted in a push towards the suburbs.

Yet syndicated columnist Fareed Zakaria recently lamented the steady erosion of the American dream due to a “crisis of immobility.” For much of the 20th century, mobility has been synonymous with movement to the ‘burbs. But as Leigh Gallagher observes in her book The End of the Suburbs, for the first time in nearly 100 years the rate of urban population growth has outpaced that of suburban growth.

  Within the past 10 years the absolute number of poor people in the suburbs surpassed the number of poor in urban areas. Photo via NZ Defense Force

Within the past 10 years the absolute number of poor people in the suburbs surpassed the number of poor in urban areas. Photo via NZ Defense Force

 Has America gone searching for her dream in the suburbs only to find some of the same challenges that exist in the city? Certain data points seem to suggest the answer is yes. Within the past 10 years the absolute number of poor people in the suburbs surpassed the number of poor in urban areas. In 2012 an estimated 16.4 million people lived below the poverty line whereas 13.4 million were in cities.

A Brookings Institute report suggests six reasons that suburban poverty is growing at twice the rate of urban poverty:

  • Population Change

  • Immigration

  • Housing

  • Economy

  • Schools

  • Transit

Public Policy Implications

Zakaria would say the above reasons serve as critical guideposts to a public policy that has been comparatively weak in producing upward social mobility. As Zakaria argues, Northern European countries, along with Canada and Australia, have consistently produced better results in elevating the poor from the lowest rungs of material wealth. The Economist criticizes America’s “thin and patchy” suburban poverty safety nets - a problem exacerbated by the decentralized landscape of suburban America where an automobile is a practical necessity. Organizations typically associated with material poverty alleviation tend to operate and coalesce around more centralized populations, allowing for the most efficient impact. The suburbs tend to cross counties and jurisdictions while the urban boundaries are typically confined to boundaries governed by single set of policies.

This all presents unique challenges to alleviation measures. Obviously, the issue of suburban poverty is much too broad and dynamic for one dimensional legislative responses. A just response to suburban poverty should leverage a mosaic of organizations and actors to alleviate the materially poor condition. As Brian Fikkert, the founder and executive director of the Chalmers Center suggests, poverty alleviation amounts to fostering a continuous process of change within communities. Where should this change originate from with so much of poverty alleviation efforts focused on urban areas?

  Where should this change originate from with so much of poverty alleviation efforts focused on urban areas? Photo courtesy of  Maureen Sil l.

Where should this change originate from with so much of poverty alleviation efforts focused on urban areas? Photo courtesy of Maureen Sill.

Future of the Suburbs

There are a number of attributes of suburban America that stand in opposition to this emerging view of suburban entropy. The burbs have become an increasingly diverse environment within the past decade as nearly one-third of America’s population resides in what is classified as “diverse suburbs.” These diverse suburbs boast thriving education systems that are racially and economically integrated. Scholarly research on integration reaffirms the notion that such assimilation tends to produce vibrant communities where businesses flourish and crime is abated.

If America is truly entering a period that witnesses the end of the suburbs, as Leigh Gallagher suggests, then the face of poverty must be altered. It is expected that there will be materially poor residing within urban settings. But acknowledging the existence of these same individuals in the suburbs is uncomfortable for middle and upper-class Americans. It is worth considering how much more uncomfortable it is for the suburban poor to acknowledge their state. Because the sprawl of the suburb often prevents us from personal encounters, there must be an image of the urban and suburban poor when thinking about, assisting with, and praying for those in poverty.

Jesus’ statement of the poor always being with us seems to linger over the discussion of suburban poverty as flight from the city has not resolved economic disparities. If anything, the face of poverty has become much more complex and multifaceted. In examining erosions of the American dream, should we not make an attempt to question the tenets of aspirations like mobility? Apart from widely discussed reasons like better schools, why have so many made efforts to settle in the suburbs? To extend this discussion it may be worth considering the allures of suburban America. Such a discussion cannot, however, ignore the millennial migration to city centers for their own piece of the American dream.

Other than for want of a better future, it is quite challenging to identify a single American dream. Variations of this dream will continue prompting some to flee the city while prompting others to move closer to them. As Americans and those coming from abroad continue to search for their American dream, policy makers should be asking themselves how to craft policy that incentivizes a reversal of suburban poverty while stemming what Zakaria calls the crisis of immobility. After all, somewhere in America right now there may be a Mary Sue asking a Miss Peters what exists beyond her own Main Street.

 -Jeremy Taylor is pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership and currently serves as a senior consultant to the federal government. He is the founder of a community forum known as Coffee & Currents that provides a welcoming environment for discussing society’s vexing questions. You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.