» How will automobile-dependent suburbs handle an influx of the poor?
A new Brookings Institution report by Elizabeth Kneebone and Emily Garr puts in dramatic clarity the rise of suburban poverty in the United States. Not only do a plurality of impoverished Americans now live in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas — 1.5 million more than in their respective central cities — but in many regions, central city poverty fell in the period between 2000 and 2008, even as it rose in the surrounding suburbs.
In the time period studied, 5.2 million more individuals descended into poverty, which in 2008 included 13.2% of the population — before the most recent recession and its devastating economic effects.
In most regions described by the study, which documented changes in the nation’s 95 largest metropolitan areas, poverty rates in suburbs and central cities mirrored one another — and overall growth statistics roughly replicated trends we’ve been seeing for years. Central city poverty rates were nearly twice as high as those in the suburbs, 18.2% versus 9.5%. Meanwhile, suburbs grew by 12.5% overall, compared to urban cores, which grew only by 3.9%. The nation suffers from growing economic inequality: more than 30% of the population fell below 200% of the poverty line by 2008. The situation has undoubtedly grown worse over the past year.
But poverty is clearly shifting outwards: the number of people living in poverty grew by 25% overall in the suburbs, compared to only 5.6% in central cities. In eighteen of the 95 metropolitan areas studied, inner-city poverty decreased or remained the same even as suburban poverty increased or remained the same. This was true of Northeast U.S. regions as a whole. The old assumptions about American cities being home to the poor and their suburbs housing the wealthy are quickly falling by the wayside.
I wrote about Paris’ investment in its suburban transit capacity on Tuesday to show how regional officials have prioritized improving public transportation in areas outside of the inner city. The French example — spurred by abundant transit within the city of Paris but insufficient services virtually everywhere else in the Île-de-France region, despite high densities and elevated social needs — may be increasingly relevant for the U.S.
I mentioned Boston, San Francisco, and Washington as three places that could benefit from expanded investments across the suburbs, and indeed, all three feature decreasing poverty rates in the urban core and increasing rates in the suburbs, as noted in the table below. Each has an old, relatively small central city and a focused transit system, fast-regenerating urban cores, in addition to a number of built-up, somewhat dense suburbs. (Note, however, that “suburbs” like Cambridge, Oakland, and Arlington are considered “central cities” by the Brookings report.) The same could be said for Baltimore, New York, Providence, and St. Louis, each of which are experiencing similar trends.
In these regions, the socio-spatial geography of a gentrifying core with less-wealthy surroundings stereotyped by Paris is coming closer to reality — though of course there is still plenty of poverty in American inner-cities. Thus far, few metropolitan areas have responded adequately to the transportation concerns that will progressively manifest themselves; while central-city-oriented transit networks are promoted vigorously, the concerns of suburbs are sidelined (including by this site). This condition seems unlikely to improve, with few metropolitan areas actually planning as a region, unlike Paris, where transportation planning and financing is conducted from the regional level.
There are major differences between the U.S. and France: American suburbs are incredibly sprawled-out, which means that high-quality, high-capacity transit would be both inefficient and inappropriate in most places. Indeed, U.S. poverty can increasingly be defined as a car-dependent one — which means that expecting to address transportation needs of the least well-off in the suburbs through better public transportation will be a failure in the short-term. This also means, unfortunately, that policies that increase costs of driving will fall directly on a large number of the working poor.
The development of a more equitable and sustainable transportation system demands an intense effort to densify and pedestrianize the same suburbs that are rapidly becoming economically diverse. We cannot continue allowing — and often subsidizing — people to live in isolated cul-de-sac neighborhoods completely inaccessible to anything by anything but a private automobiles. We must construct new town centers in suburban communities with essential services and mixed-income housing accessible via transit to urban cores. The current trends, enforced by local, state, and national planning decisions, are producing a lower class that spends far too much on private transportation.
It’s a reckless course barreling straight towards increasing inequality.
|Metropolitan Areas where Center City Poverty Decreased while Suburban Poverty Increased between 2000 and 2008 (table is sortable)
Cities with the largest number of transit commuters.
|Note: Poverty levels are defined by the U.S. government and equal $21,834 or less annually for a four-person family in 2008 dollars. Chart based on data from the Brookings Institution.