Suburbanization of poverty


Poverty in the USofA is generally regarded as an urban phenomenon.  This belief has very long roots that go back to our origins as a largely agricultural nation where cities grew primarily with immigration – people who had nothing but a strong back and a desire to work.  Constant growth and government policy maintained this situation until very recently, but that is changing.

In 2008 the Brookings Institution found that suburban poverty was increasing at an alarming rate across the nation.  In many urban areas the suburban poor outnumber those in the inner city – and suburban poverty rates are growing at five times the urban average.  In the Minneapolis-St Paul urban area, 54% of the poor lived in suburbs as of 2008 and this trend is growing.

There are deep social and political changes that can be expected from this change, which should only continue.

Before the Civil War the belief in poverty as an urban problem was discussed in many of the same terms used to define poverty today.  The urban poor were seen as a drag by the South and were part of the rhetoric used to justify their split 150 years ago in vivid terms.  In the “Long Depression” of 1893 urban poverty reached a critical point, spurring the development of labor unions and the rise of Progressive politics.  The great waves of immigration at the heart of the developing cities slowed by the Great Depression of 1929, and post WWII America should have entered a period where everything evened out.

Anyone who studies urban history can see how great slums are nothing more than a reflection of tremendous upheaval and change.  My own neighborhood, Irvine Park, was the rich neighborhood in Saint Paul from the 1850s into the 1890s.  When the transportation infrastructure was extended “up the hill”, we fell on hard times that lasted three generations.  That changed when the stately old mansions near the Mississippi were fixed up and the general value of living within walking distance of Downtown became appreciated.

It’s very similar what happened in Manhattan – once a place where neighborhoods like Tribeca were home to roving gangs but are now completely unaffordable by all but the richest.  It’s all a matter of transportation infrastructure and commute time.

In the 1950s, a tremendous investment in highways made it possible for people who worked in cities to live quite far away.  The resulting flight more or less abandoned our cities just when they should have started seeing the fruits of a century of development.  Direct intervention by government created the highway system that reinforced the old idea that cities were slums that needed to be left behind.  As long as commute times stayed under about an hour and the cost wasn’t too great, the system worked.

This massive government intervention was popular because it came from a deep cultural belief.  But it was only stalling the inevitable.  Cities are more than warehouses for the poor, they are centers of economic opportunity.

That is becoming increasingly obvious – and this trend will continue.

We can see this trend continuing on as the Managed Depression of 2001 became more severe after the 2008 Brookings report on increasing suburban poverty.  In 2010 the Minnesota Home Ownership Center found that suburban foreclosure rates were higher (pdf!) than those in the inner city.  Downward mobility in the suburbs is only accelerating.

Our politics hardly reflects these changes.  This is only reasonable when you consider how ancient the belief is that cities are great slums full of the poor and how much public money we’ve spent to reinforce this belief over time.  Those who are experiencing increasing poverty in their own communities are probably among the most angry, given that this is a developing phenomenon that has yet to settle out.  But it will.

How long will everyone stay angry?  What would happen if a lifestyle, highly dependent on subsidies to roads, actually got the smaller government it often demands?

The suburbanization of poverty is a very strong trend with long and deep implications that will take years to settle out.  But it is nothing more than a natural trend that constantly plays out in a smaller scale – unless there is intervention to stop it.   The politics in place will only encourage this phenomenon for reasons that it will not understand, causing us to walk rather blindly into a future where “conventional wisdom” will be overturned.  Fasten your seatbelts.