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date: 02 July 2022

The Rise of Suburban Poverty

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the suburbanization of poverty in metropolitan areas with a particular focus on the experience of the United States. The discussion highlights key trends and likely causes of suburban poverty and provides an overview of various attempts to classify heterogeneity across suburbs. We believe the trends and consequences observed in the United States are relevant to a broad host of global settings, some of which have been struggling with high rates of suburban poverty for some time. The article closes by identifying gaps in current knowledge related to the suburbanization of poverty and highlighting the implications of the suburbanization of poverty for safety net policy.

Keywords: poverty, suburbs, metropolitan, inequality, safety net, welfare state


Of concern in this article is the suburbanization of poverty within metropolitan areas around the globe. Poverty in many parts of the world is conceived as a problem largely present in cities or rural communities. In recent years, however, there is mounting evidence that poverty is prevalent in suburban communities neighboring the municipal boundaries of major cities. Today, nearly 60% of all poor persons in the largest 100 US metropolitan areas reside in the suburbs outside the city limits of the primary urban center (Kneebone and Berube 2013; Kneebone and Williams 2013). The number of suburban residents living below the federal poverty line in the United States has more than doubled since 1970. Poverty rates, or the percentage of the population that is poor, remain much higher in American cities than in suburbs as a rule. Suburban poverty rates, however, have increased by 50% on average since 1990. Rising suburban poverty can be found elsewhere around the globe, as well. The number of poor persons in the suburbs of English and Welsh cities increased by 6.8 million persons from 2001 to 2011 (Hunter 2014). Research finds that a large share of the poor in urbanized areas of countries such as India and Vietnam reside in smaller municipalities and towns that often surround major urban centers (World Bank 2013).

Understanding trends in suburban and urban poverty within modern metropolitan areas is critical to any question about the nature of opportunity, inequality, and mobility in the twenty-first century. Metropolitan areas encompass both urban and suburban communities, often maintaining large geographic footprints that stretch over thousands of square miles and many different local governmental jurisdictions. Economic and political activity within metropolitan areas often revolves around a main urban core or city center where key institutions, firms, and organizations are located. A large share of the residential population in many metropolitan areas, however, is located outside the traditional central city and in suburban municipalities and places ringing the urban core (Clapson and Hutchison 2010; Kneebone and Berube 2013). Increased poverty in the suburbs and cities of metropolitan areas strains transportation systems, schools, public health infrastructure, public safety resources, and the housing supply. Evidence of rising poverty in suburbs of the United States has not corresponded to a reduction of poverty rates, the numbers of poor persons, or the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in most urban centers. While metropolitan areas have experience in addressing poverty in cities, they have comparatively less experience working on poverty-related issues in suburbs. Contemporary metropolitan areas, therefore, are often faced with the challenge to balance the persistent needs and interests of the urban core with those emerging in the suburban periphery.

The poor may face unique challenges depending on where they live within a metropolitan area. For example, opportunities and resources are more dispersed geographically in suburban areas than in cities. Suburban poor persons, much like poor persons in rural areas, often must commute great distances to access job opportunities, grocery stores and commercial areas, and various health or support services without the public transportation resources commonly available in urban centers. Limited access to opportunity and high costs of commuting most likely have deleterious effects on household well-being and self-sufficiency (Allard and Roth 2010; Kneebone and Berube 2013; Raphael and Stoll 2010). At the same time, research shows that residents of high-poverty urban neighborhoods, often deeply segregated by race and ethnicity, are disproportionately likely to experience unemployment, food insecurity, and poor health (Jargowsky 1997, 2013; Wilson 1987, 1996). Persons in high-poverty neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to crime, violence, community disorder, and low levels of collective efficacy, all of which are thought to have a negative effect on residents’ personal and economic well-being (Briggs 1997; Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley 2002). A growing body of research finds that growing up in high-poverty urban neighborhoods has a negative impact on a range of behavioral, developmental, and educational outcomes among children and adolescents (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1993; Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2003; Sharkey 2009). Nevertheless, being poor in an urban or suburban area may be qualitatively similar in many respects. Material hardship corresponds to experiences of food insecurity or hunger, poor health, low-quality housing conditions, and stress associated with scarce resources, regardless of where one lives. The experience of poverty can be one of isolation and marginalization from mainstream society in cities and suburbs alike.

How poverty is spatially distributed within a metropolitan area also is consequential for governance and safety net policy. In particular, the local geography of poverty shapes how the burdens and responsibilities of providing assistance are spatially distributed across local governmental and nongovernmental actors. Rising poverty in suburban areas creates demand for increased public spending in social services, housing, education, and infrastructure. To the extent that local decisions about whether or how to respond to rising poverty are financed through own-source revenues, suburban responses should be shaped by economic competitive pressures. Raising tax rates to increase revenues available for investments and programming may diminish a suburban community’s appeal to potential homeowners or businesses. Suburban communities also may behave as if local antipoverty programming will attract greater numbers of poor persons, despite a lack of clear evidence that low-income families make residential location decisions based upon the presence of local antipoverty programs (Allard, forthcoming). Regardless, there is reason to believe that competitive pressures often will lead suburbs to be no more willing to address poverty issues than their neighbors. Rising poverty in suburbs should increase the competitive pressures felt between urban and suburban places for many of these same reasons. Combined, these forces likely limit the degree to which collaborative solutions can be found in settings where local communities bear some responsibility for addressing poverty problems. Moreover, if governmental and nongovernmental ability to deliver antipoverty assistance is not well matched to the geography of poverty, we expect that communities will struggle to adequately address the basic needs of poor families, which should compound the deleterious effects of living in poverty (Allard, forthcoming; Allard and Roth 2010).

In this article, we examine the context and consequences of suburban poverty with a particular focus on suburban poverty in the United States, where there is a larger body of research to date. We highlight key trends and likely causes, finishing with a discussion of implications for both policy and research. For researchers, students, and practitioners with an interest in urbanization, we argue that understanding the geography of poverty in metropolitan areas is essential to understanding both the promise and challenges of metropolitan growth in the coming decades. Although the American experience may be unique in many regards, the trends and consequences observed in the United States are likely to be relevant to a broad host of settings—some of which have been struggling with high rates of suburban poverty for some time.

Defining Poverty, Defining Place

It is important to define what we mean by poverty at the outset and define what constitutes a metropolitan area and a suburban versus urban location within a metropolitan area. Depending on how one defines these key terms, trends in place and poverty may shift slightly. Understanding the distinctions inherent in different definitions or conceptualizations will help readers make sense of findings reported here and also of related work published elsewhere.


Poverty is the lack of income and resources necessary to live adequately by societal standards. We often think of those in poverty as being unable to secure basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Formal definitions or measurements of poverty vary from place to place. The US government sets its official poverty measure according to an absolute poverty threshold, commonly called the federal poverty line, using a formula based on a household’s annual income. Households below this absolute threshold are considered poor. In 2014, the federal poverty line was set at $24,418 for a family of four in the United States (US Census Bureau 2015c). Using this definition, the US government classified approximately 14.8% of the population as “poor” in 2014 (DeNavas-Walt and Proctor 2015).

Definitions of poverty vary across other states and settings. For example, the Canadian government’s after-tax low-income measure (LIM) determines relative poverty thresholds based on the median of the after-tax income distribution of the whole population; in 2009, the threshold for a family of four was set at C$37,360. Under the LIM, 13.3% of Canadians were considered low income in 2009 (Murphy, Zhang, and Dionne 2012), compared to 14.3% of Americans with incomes below the federal poverty line in the same year (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, and Smith 2010). In the European Union (EU), it is common to define the poverty line at 60% of national median income, a definition that shifts with rising or falling incomes or with shifts in income inequality. Using this relative measure of poverty, over 16% of EU citizens are in poverty as of 2013 (Eurostat 2015). Recently, the United States introduced a supplemental poverty measure that includes noncash public assistance benefits; deducts taxes, work expenses, and medical costs; and uses a relative poverty threshold based on household food, clothing, shelter, and utility expenses. The poverty rate in the United States following this supplemental poverty measure was 15.3% in 2014, slightly higher than the official poverty measure (Short 2015). When looking at less developed countries, scholars and policymakers often rely on the World Bank poverty threshold of US$1.90 per person, per day (World Bank 2016). By this measure, roughly 15% of the population in developing countries lives in poverty (as of 2012) (World Bank 2016).

Poverty also can reflect relative experience or material status, or relate to nonmaterial concerns. For example, many people living in the United States today believe that cars are a necessity and that owning a car is critical to living a decent life. Such people may consider themselves poor if they cannot afford a car. A car, however, may be thought of as a less common or necessary item or even a luxury item in other countries, and not an indicator of one’s poverty status. Similarly, we might think of poverty in terms of limited participation in or marginalization from society. Such textured notions of poverty are valuable, yet researchers rarely measure such factors consistently over time across a representative population sample of multiple metropolitan areas. The study of poverty, therefore, often forces a choice between measures of poverty that lend themselves to consistent spatial and temporal comparison versus measures with greater texture or depth that may lack such spatial or temporal variation. Much of the following discussion focuses on poverty rates and counts of poor persons in the United States using the federal poverty line, an absolute measure of poverty that has been gathered consistently across metropolitan areas over time but does not capture the many hardships associated with living in poverty.

Research examining issues of place and poverty most often focuses on poverty rates, the percentage or share of residents in a particular place who are poor. Poverty rates provide information about the prevalence of poverty within the population of a given neighborhood, place, or region. Poverty rates typically are used to compare the severity of poverty across different types of places. Scholars and policymakers are particularly concerned with places experiencing high rates of poverty and where poverty is highly concentrated or segregated. Evidence strongly indicates that living in a high-poverty area has many deleterious effects on household, adult, and child well-being (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1997; Jencks and Mayer 1990; Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000; Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley 2002). High-poverty areas also often lack access to basic amenities, services, and employment opportunities (Allard 2009; Galster 2012; Jargowsky 1997; Stoll, Holzer, and Ihlanfeldt 2000; Wilson 1987). The consequences of living in a high-poverty community are important because they can affect both households in poverty and not in poverty, adults and children.

At other times, we may be concerned with the number of poor persons in a community and changes in the number of poor persons over time. Large changes in the number of poor persons can be of great importance even when area poverty rates change little or remain low. Households, children, and adults represent the unit of service provision for local agencies and organizations. Increases in the number of poor persons or households with a given community can create significant demand for additional services from local schools, transportation agencies, public health agencies, and safety net programs. Similarly, increases in the number of poor persons may outpace the availability of job opportunities in the surrounding community, creating sudden pockets of unemployment or underemployment. Communities with historically low poverty rates may be particularly vulnerable to rapid increases in the number of poor persons, as they will be confronted with programmatic needs and demands for assistance that cannot be addressed easily in the immediate-term given limited local institutional capacity.

Metropolitan Areas, Urban Areas, and Suburbs

Any definition of what is urban or suburban must begin with defining metropolitan area geography that bounds the central city and periphery. There are no globally accepted criteria for what constitutes a metropolitan area, although there are formal definitions developed for governance or administrative purposes that shape scholarly definitions. For example, the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines a metropolitan area (also referred to as a metropolitan statistical area) as an area containing a population nucleus of at least 50,000, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core (US Census Bureau 2015b). To qualify as a metropolitan area under this formal definition, a given region must contain at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants. The largest city or urban area in each metropolitan area is classified as the principal city, although it is possible for there to be multiple principal cities in extremely large metropolitan areas (e.g., New York City, Los Angeles). By this definition, roughly 85% of the US population lives in one of 381 OMB-defined metropolitan areas, and about two-thirds of the US population lives in the largest 100 OMB-defined metros (Kneebone and Berube 2013; US Census Bureau 2015a). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2012) defines metropolitan areas similarly, identifying the commuting zones surrounding a central city or set of cities as those containing populations of at least 50,000 inhabitants. Following OECD guidelines, almost two-thirds of the population of the European Union lives in metropolitan areas (Dijkstra and Poelman 2012).

Within a metropolitan footprint are many different types of formally defined local jurisdictions (e.g., county, municipality, town, village), each with their own set of formal responsibilities and powers. County jurisdictions in the United States, like metropolitan areas, encompass other lower level local jurisdictions, such a municipalities or towns. Whereas metropolitan governance structures often have few formal powers or responsibilities in the United States, county government often has formal administrative functions and spending powers. Counties in the United States often have responsibility to implement a variety of state government policies and programs, particularly safety net or antipoverty assistance. Local municipalities have various powers and responsibilities, the scope and significance of which depends on the setting. Again, using the United States example, local municipalities have some formal taxing and spending powers, as well as the responsibility of providing basic services (e.g., roads, public safety, and utilities). In addition to counties and local municipalities, there also may be unincorporated areas within metropolitan areas, or on the periphery of metropolitan areas, that do not have any formal government structures or powers. Unincorporated areas tend to rely heavily upon county government or surrounding municipal jurisdictions for basic services.

Apart from the myriad of formal local institutions and jurisdictions, local places often are disaggregated into smaller geographic units. For example, it is common for there to be formally defined neighborhood boundaries with unique demographic, economic, cultural, and/or social features that represent a shared identity or space. The City of Chicago defines 77 community areas that reflect historic neighborhood boundaries and play a role in local planning activities. Similar local neighborhood district and borough definitions can be found in many other major cities worldwide, including New York City, London, and Berlin. Census enumeration occurs in small local geographic units, such as tracts or block groups in the United States or output areas in the United Kingdom, which can be taken as rough proxies of neighborhood. Because information about population demographics, housing, income, labor market activity, and safety net participation often are gathered in these local census enumeration units, they are particularly useful to researchers examining the relationship between poverty and place.

Just as there are many definitions of poverty, there are many ways to define what is urban versus suburban. In fact, variation in the definition of what is urban versus suburban poses one of the biggest challenges to providing accurate estimates of urban versus suburban poverty problems across metropolitan areas throughout the globe. In the United States, as in most of the world, there is no formal or official definition of what constitutes a suburban versus an urban community, place, or jurisdiction. Classifications of places as urban or suburban tend to be rooted in one or more of the local jurisdictional distinctions and enumeration units discussed earlier. The urban center often is a widely recognized city, sometimes defined as a primary or principal city, or perhaps the commuting hub or administrative center for a metropolitan area. Urban areas are commonly defined as the neighborhoods and communities inside the formal boundaries of the primary city. Suburbs, at a basic level, can be thought of as local places outside of, but proximate to, an urban center within a metropolitan area or region. It is common to define suburbs as being primarily low-density residential communities—often composed of single-family homes—from where workers commute to the center core. At times, suburbs in the United States have been defined as the counties outside or adjacent to the urban county containing the primary city. Such definitions, however, fail to capture the suburban municipalities that border the primary city located in the core urban county. At other times, distinctions can be made between what is urban and suburban by the presence of social problems that are associated with urban areas, such as school dropouts or gang violence, rather than any spatial consideration.

Defining what constitutes an urban versus suburban place can vary from setting to setting and also over time. For example, suburbs in the American experience first emerged in the nineteenth century, attributed to the rise of a culture of domesticity that valued the separation of workplace from residential location, innovations in transportation, perceptions of urban disorder, and xenophobia (Kruse and Sugrue 2006). The pace of suburbanization increased in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, an era in which housing and transportation policy favored development outside cities and in the first American suburbs (Hudnut 2003; Jackson 1985; Kruse and Sugrue 2006; Puentes and Warren 2006; Teaford 2008). Driven by social preferences and public policies that favored continued development outward from central cities, these “first suburbs” yielded to subsequent waves of suburbanization during the late twentieth century. What was once suburban, however, may appear quite urban over time. For example, Puentes and Warren (2006) classify Middlesex County north and west of Boston as a first suburb. Within Middlesex County there are towns such as Lexington or Concord that have remained fairly suburban in nature over time. There also are cities like Cambridge or Somerville, while once suburban, are now nearly indistinguishable from neighborhoods in Boston just across the Charles River. Similarly, the timing of urbanization matters as to how suburbs have emerged. Newer cities in the southern and southwestern parts of the United States, such as Houston, Texas, or Phoenix, Arizona, have land areas that are two to three times as large as the municipal footprints of older cities in the North such as Chicago, Illinois, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These newer cities have communities and neighborhoods at the periphery of the municipal boundary that are technically defined as “urban” but feel very much like “suburban” communities because of their residential composition. Such places would be well outside the municipal borders of the older cities in the North with smaller footprints.

To highlight many of the key considerations present when developing a definition of urban versus suburban areas, figure 1 presents a map of metropolitan Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, the 16th-largest metropolitan area in the United States. First, we see the outline of the metropolitan area and note that this metropolitan area is composed of 13 counties. Second, we see that there are two “primary” cities, or urban municipalities, in this metropolitan area, often called the “Twin Cities”: Minneapolis (with a population of 411,286 in 2014) and St. Paul (with a population of 299,641 in 2014). As a result, Hennepin and Ramsey Counties (housing the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively) may be thought of as the urban counties in the metropolitan area, with the remaining 11 counties bounding more suburban areas. The boundaries of suburban municipalities can be seen within each county’s jurisdiction. The shading in figure 1 reflects the median age of the housing stock, which highlights the older “first” suburbs immediately outside the Twin Cities versus the newer suburbs farther out. As one moves to the outer edge of the metropolitan area, there are fewer municipal boundaries and a larger number of unincorporated areas. At the very edge of the metropolitan area are places with older housing stocks that represent formally rural communities that have since become part of the metro area as the processes of suburbanization and residential development have extended outward over the past 40 years.

The Rise of Suburban Poverty

Figure 1 Defining Urban versus Suburban Communities, Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area

Note: Urban-suburban definitions based on 2010 US Census geography.

Source: 2006–2010 American Community Survey.

While discussion and debate about what constitutes a suburban versus an urban area is a useful exercise, it is unlikely that scholars and policymakers will eventually settle on a single definition. Moreover, because different definitions may be more appropriate in certain settings, we believe it is important to embrace a diversity of definitions. A more useful exercise may be to consider the assumptions embedded in any given definition, the analytic advantages or limits of a particular approach, and the generalizability of defining parameters to a host of settings. For example, using a county-based system of defining urban and suburban areas in the largest 100 areas of the United States, Allard (forthcoming) demonstrates that there were about 20 million poor persons in US urban counties in 2014 versus nearly 10 million in suburban counties. When defining suburbs in these same metropolitan areas along municipal boundaries, however, the author finds there to be 12.7 million poor persons in urban places in 2014 versus 16.9 million in suburban places. The advantages and disadvantages of choosing particular definitions of urban and suburban areas must be weighed appropriately depending on the context in which they are to be used.

Trends in Suburban Poverty

The lack of consistent definitions of urban, suburban, and metropolitan areas across different settings, along with the lack of demographic data consistently gathered at the local level, often confound efforts to examine spatial trends in poverty cross-nationally. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of research and data, much of it from the United States, which has contributed to interest in suburban poverty.

Changes in the geography of poverty across metropolitan and rural areas in the United States can be traced back to 1970. Kneebone and Berube (2013) found that approximately 27% of all poor persons lived in the cities of large metropolitan areas in 1970 and 24% of all poor persons lived in the suburbs of those cities. In the same year, almost one-third of poor persons lived in rural areas, while another 20% lived in small metropolitan areas. Over the ensuing decades, the authors observed dramatic change in the spatial distribution of the poor. The share of the nation’s poor population in the suburbs of the largest metropolitan areas rose significantly after 1970. By 2000, about 30% of the nation’s poor lived in the cities of the largest metropolitan areas, and nearly 30% lived in the suburbs. Over the same time period, the share of poor persons living in rural areas fell dramatically to less than a quarter.

The distribution of poverty between cities and suburbs of the largest metro areas shifted even more dramatically from 1990 to 2014. Table 1 reports poverty figures for urban and suburban census tracts in the 100-largest US metropolitan areas from 1990 to 2014, using the same approach to defining urban and suburban areas discussed in figure 1. Urban areas of the largest US metropolitan areas were home to slightly more poor persons in 1990 than suburbs (i.e., 9.5 million versus 8.6 million, respectively). The number of persons living in poverty increased substantially across cities and suburbs in the following two decades. By 2014, the number of poor persons in central cities of the largest metropolitan areas had risen by 33.5% to total 12.7 million persons. Overall population growth in cities during this 25-year period was just 14.4%. The number of poor persons in suburbs nearly doubled between 1990 and 2014, exceeding the number in cities by more than four million in 2014. Almost 60% of all poor persons residing in the largest US metropolitan areas live in suburbs today, compared with 71% of all persons living in those metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, growth in the poverty population in suburbs has greatly exceeded overall population growth in the past 25 years. For example, mature suburbs experienced almost no net population growth from 1990 to 2014, yet the number of poor persons in suburbs built before 1970 increased by more than 55% from 1990 to 2014. Contrary to popular impressions that suburban poverty is most acute in older inner-tier suburbs, however, new American suburbs also saw increases in poverty that outpace population growth. The number of poor persons in suburbs built after 1970 increased by almost 135% since 1990, twice the rate of total population growth.

Table 1 Changes in Poverty, Largest 100 Metropolitan Areas in the United States, 1990–2014

Total Poverty Population (in 1,000s)

Percentage Change (1990–2014)

Mean Poverty Rate



Poverty Population

Total Population



Urban tracts







Suburban tracts







Mature (pre-1970)







New (post-1970)







Sources: US Census 1990; American Community Survey, 2010–2014.

Note: These data reflect the largest 100 metropolitan areas. Poverty is defined here as household income at or below the federal poverty threshold. Mature suburbs are defined as those where the median housing build is before 1970. New suburbs are defined as those where the median housing build is after 1970.

Despite rising poverty in suburbs, urban areas remain confronted with significant poverty problems. We see evidence of this in the United States as increases in suburban poverty over the past several decades have not resulted in net decreases in the number of poor persons in cities. Neither has suburban poverty transformed the relative prevalence of poverty within cities and suburbs. The mean poverty rate, or the percent of persons living in poverty, in urban census tracts remains almost twice as high in urban areas than in suburban areas (23.2% versus 12.2% in 2014, see table 1). Poverty also remains much more highly concentrated in cities than in suburbs. For example, Kneebone (2014) finds that there were 7,269 high-poverty urban census tracts with poverty rates of over 20% in the largest 100 metro areas in 2012, compared with 4,872 suburban census tracts. The number of high-poverty suburban tracts more than doubled since 2000, however, compared with an increase in the number of high-poverty urban tracts of about 25% during the same period.

Evidence of substantial poverty in suburban areas can be found elsewhere in the world. Research examining poverty in the central cities and suburbs of England and Wales finds patterns similar to those observed in the United States. Hunter (2014) finds that 57% of those living in poverty in England and Wales in 2011 lived in suburbs. A majority of London’s poor, for instance, were living in outer London in 2011, up from a roughly even split between the city and its suburbs in 2001. The number of high-poverty (above average) areas in suburban London increased by 34% from 2001 to 2011. In France, it is estimated that approximately one-third of the residents of the banlieues, or “sensitive urban zones,” communities characterized by high rates of poverty, concentrations of public housing estates or developments, high rates of unemployment, and race and ethnic segregation, live in poverty, roughly triple the national average (OECD 2013; Observatoire National de la Pauvreté et de l’Exclusion Sociale 2012).

Microlevel data is not readily available in most settings to provide a clear demographic picture of how the urban and suburban poor differ, but recent research in both the United States and United Kingdom finds that the suburban and urban poor share a notable number of demographic and economic characteristics. For example, nearly 60% of the urban and suburban poor in the United States are working-age adults (Kneebone and Berube 2013). Poor urban and suburban households in the United States and United Kingdom look very similar in labor force participation and educational attainment. Households led by single parents account for large shares of poor families in both suburbs and cities of the United States and United Kingdom (Kneebone and Berube 2013; Hunter 2014). Holliday and Dwyer (2009) find residents of high-poverty suburban and urban neighborhoods to have similar educational attainment, median household income, and household composition. The race and ethnic composition of the urban and suburban poor in the United States closely resembles the racial and ethnic composition of urban and suburban areas overall. Forty-four percent of suburban poor persons in the United States are white, compared with only 24% of the urban poor (Kneebone and Berube 2013). Nevertheless, suburbs in the United States are becoming increasingly diverse places racially, ethnically, and culturally (Frey 2011, 2014).

These demographic realities stand in sharp contrast to conventional wisdom and US-focused portrayals of suburbs in several respects (Harris 2010; Murphy 2010). Rising suburban poverty runs counter to popular perceptions about suburban living, particularly in the United States where suburbs have a distinct place in cultural myth. Suburbs in the American experience are largely viewed to be post–World War II residential communities that are predominately white, affluent, and conforming to a two-parent household norm (Kneebone and Berube 2013; Kruse and Sugrue 2006; Murphy 2010; Teaford 2008). Increased poverty in US suburbs also runs counter to traditional models of metropolitan growth and decline. Typically, scholars conceptualize the metropolitan growth process as following an ecological model, where more affluent households locate away from central cities and in lower density suburbs. Poverty, in these models, tends to be concentrated in central cities, which are feared to be unsafe, home to low-quality services and schools, and isolated from opportunity. It is expected that poverty suburbanizes when urban decline reaches inner-ring suburban neighborhoods, which then decline economically and become home to larger percentages of low-income households (Downs 1997; Holliday and Dwyer 2009; Park, Burgess, and McKenzie 1925). Although high-poverty urban areas in the United States tend to border poorer suburban areas, poverty today can be found in the midst of even the most affluent suburban communities, far from their central cities and in contrast to what we might expect from ecological models of metropolitan areas (Allard, forthcoming; Kneebone and Berube 2013).

What Is Driving Rising Suburban Poverty?

Given the diversity of suburban contexts and settings in the United States and in other settings, it is not surprising there is no single explanatory factor driving the trend in rising suburban poverty. Instead, there is a set of common factors that, to some degree, are present in most settings. In some local places, one or more factors may be particularly present, but it is unusual for there to be a single factor shaping shifts in the spatial distribution of poverty within a given area or region. Moreover, increases in suburban poverty tend not to occur overnight; rather, these increases slowly emerge over time due to persistent demographic, economic, and policy-related factors.

One of the biggest factors driving the rise in the number of poor persons and poverty rates in suburbs is simply the process of urbanization and the growth of the population living in suburban places. Even if poverty rates remain constant, growth in suburban populations will naturally lead to increases in the number of poor persons living in the suburbs. Such spatial shifts in population are prominent in the United States, which has become a plurality suburban nation over the past several decades. Population growth trends in more recent years continue to reinforce the suburbanization of America. For instance, Kneebone and Garr (2010) report that total suburban population growth outpaced that of cities during the 2000s.

Yet, because the magnitude of the increase in suburban poverty exceeds simple population growth, researchers in the United States have attempted to identify other factors driving the spatial trends in poverty. Most notable are changes in metropolitan economies and labor markets that have led to significant downward mobility in place. The last decade was bracketed by two economic recessions, which impacted the United States suburbs more directly than previous recessions (Garr 2011; Kneebone and Berube 2013). In addition, declining real earnings from work, increasing returns to education, and persistently high rates of unemployment have become economic realities for suburban residents in recent years, much like they have been challenges confronting cities since the 1970s (Allard, forthcoming). Similar economic forces are at work in metropolitan areas outside the United States. For example, polarization between the advantaged and disadvantaged in the United Kingdom is said to have been driven by the effects of global economic restructuring, the deindustrialization of the UK economy, and ineffective urban policies (Pacione 2004). Changes to suburban labor markets can lead to increased poverty through a number of pathways, such as job losses, lost earnings, and/or limited intergenerational wealth transmission among long-time suburban residents. At the same time, many aging suburban residents may be grappling with high costs of living and real dollar declines in fixed income.

Compounding these broad economic forces, suburban poor populations in the United States are slightly more likely to locate in communities with below-average numbers of jobs (Raphael and Stoll 2010), even though job opportunities, especially low-skill job opportunities, have tended to locate in suburbs in recent years (Kneebone 2009; Stoll, Holzer, and Ihlanfeldt 2000). Spatial mismatch between the location of jobs and job seekers in suburbs potentially places a significant commuting and search burden on low-wage, low-skill job seekers in suburban areas, particularly for persons with limited access to cars or public transportation. There are several factors likely driving spatial mismatch between the suburban poor and the location of available jobs across United States metro areas (Holzer and Stoll 2007; Kneebone and Holmes 2015). The shift of employment opportunities away from cities and to suburbs reflects both that jobs have followed people as America has become a suburban nation and that people from cities have followed job opportunities to the suburbs (Glaeser and Kahn 2001; Holzer and Stoll 2007; Raphael and Stoll 2010). Suburban job growth in recent decades, however, has occurred at a much faster rate in higher income suburbs than low-income suburbs (Holzer and Stoll 2007). Moreover, there is evidence that racial and ethnic residential segregation limits the extent to which blacks and Latinos may be able to relocate closer to concentrations of job opportunities (Stoll and Covington 2012). Mismatches in suburban labor markets are thought to be an important driver of the rising number of poor persons in suburbs and increased suburban poverty rates in the United States over the past several decades (Allard, forthcoming; Raphael and Stoll 2010).

A portion of the increase in suburban poverty also is due to patterns of residential settlement, mobility, and relocation within metropolitan areas. In the United States and in other settings, there are well-established patterns of out-migration from cities to suburbs. Apart from seeking better job opportunities, urban residents often move to suburbs in a search for more affordable homes, better schools, and safer communities (Frey 2014; Holliday and Dwyer 2009; Leigh and Lee 2005; Orfield 2002). It is reasonable to expect that increased poverty observed in American suburbs is tied in part to out-migration of poor urban residents seeking better opportunities in the suburbs. Some suburban residents may be moving to outer-edge suburban areas away from the traffic, greater population densities, and aging housing stock of the inner suburban areas. At the same time, processes of urban redevelopment and gentrification have made cities more vibrant economically and attractive culturally to more affluent persons who in past decades may have lived in suburbs (Atkinson and Bridge 2005; Hyra 2008, 2012). Redevelopment of central cities in recent decades has raised housing or rental prices near the urban core, likely leading some low-income urban residents to search surrounding suburbs for more affordable housing options (Guerrieri, Hurst, and Hartley 2013; Hyra and Rugh 2016).

Rising poverty in many suburban communities also reflects changing immigrant settlement patterns, where immigrant families are now tending to locate in suburbs upon arrival in the United States, rather than in the central cities (Wilson and Svajlenka 2014). While the suburbanization of poverty increased among US-born residents during the 2000s, foreign-born residents of suburbs experience poverty at markedly higher rates than their US-born counterparts (Suro, Wilson, and Singer 2011). Similar trends in immigration-settlement patterns and poverty trends are present in other developed countries (for example, see Wacquant 2008). Recent immigrant arrivals may face many barriers to well-being, such as discrimination in housing and labor markets, language barriers, and low skills. At the same time, immigrants may not be eligible for the same set of safety net programs or benefits that citizens or native-born poor persons can access. The effects of these barriers to safety net assistance may be further exacerbated in suburbs, where significant spatial mismatches exist between organizations working with the poor and populations in need (Allard 2009; Allard and Roth 2010).

Increased poverty in the suburbs outside urban centers also may reflect the limited mobility of low-income households. Poor suburban families may be less mobile because finding and moving to a new home can be costly. To the extent that poor persons in a given suburban area are less mobile than more affluent individuals in that same area, we would expect the out-migration of more affluent persons to result in higher poverty rates even if the number of poor persons living in that community did not increase. Discrimination and the lack of affordable housing options also limit the choices that low-income black and Hispanic families have in suburban housing markets to areas with large percentages of race and ethnic minorities or poor persons, often areas where poverty rates are higher than in surrounding places. Thus, we should expect that racial and ethnic residential segregation can lead to greater numbers and concentration of poor households in suburbs already experiencing high poverty rates (Allard, forthcoming; Jargowsky, Rog, and Henderson 2014).

Reinforcing population flows, government policies also shape the geography of poverty in many settings. Decisions of where to locate affordable housing, extend public transportation lines, and invest in redevelopment all contribute to the spatial distribution of poor populations. For example, federal and local housing assistance policies in the United States following World War II effectively created high-poverty, racially segregated communities in central city areas isolated from economic opportunity (Jackson 1985; Wilson 1987; Sugrue 1996). In France, as in other European cities, decisions to concentrate subsidized housing developments in the suburban banlieues have contributed greatly to problems associated with concentrated suburban poverty and isolation (Wacquant 2008). More recent housing policy in the United States has used a mix of vouchers, reduction in large housing developments or projects, and mixed-income developments to reduce the segregation of low-income households (Schwartz 2014). In United States cities such as Chicago, which has used an aggressive mix of these types of policy tools over the past 15 years to transform public housing, there is found evidence that many former residents of large housing developments have become more widely dispersed across the central city but do not appear to have moved in large numbers to inner-tier suburbs (Buron and Popkin 2010; Chicago Housing Authority 2011). Similar changes in housing assistance in the United Kingdom, however, are thought to present opportunities for poor families to move to outer urban or suburban areas (Lupton 2011).

Because a complex mix of economic, political, and social forces have simultaneously driven increases in suburban poverty, it is difficult to discern which factors matter most in which places. Achieving clarity on the causal factors shaping increased poverty in suburbs is further complicated by the fact that suburbs themselves are quite different from one another. Popular perceptions of which factors matter often point to highly visible demographic or economic changes, such as immigration patterns, which tend to explain only a portion of the rise in suburban poverty in any given setting. Moreover, the limited availability of microlevel data following households over time in different settings also complicates efforts to sort out structural factors from household mobility decisions. As we note in the concluding section, there remains a great need for additional research tracing the causes of rising poverty in different suburban areas.

Suburban Heterogeneity and Typologies

Evidence that poverty trends and causal factors vary across suburban communities and regions reflects the fact that suburban areas are quite heterogeneous in their demographic composition, economic fundamentals, and institutional capacity (Kneebone and Berube 2013; Murphy 2010; Mikelbank 2004; Orfield 2002). Such variation is critical to understanding how suburban experiences with poverty vary and how suburban poverty may be unique from urban poverty. For example, the characteristics of suburbs in the United States can vary depending on their historic relationship to the central city or center hub. Some inner-tier suburbs have demographic and economic histories similar to their neighboring central cities, giving those suburbs a decidedly urban feel with dense housing patterns and the remains of the industrial economy of a century ago. Often a bit farther out from the central cities are suburban homes in bedroom communities built during the decades immediately following World War II. These older residential suburbs contrast with outer-edge large-lot suburbs that more closely resemble rural communities than inner-tier suburbs. Apart from distance, however, a number of other factors can vary systematically between suburbs of the same metropolitan area: race and ethnic composition; age distribution; age, type, and price of housing stock; quality of local public service, public works, and social service infrastructure; and the contours of local labor markets. Older, inner-ring suburbs tend to have higher rates of poverty than outer-ring suburbs (Cooke and Denton 2015; Hanlon 2009; Hanlon, Vicino, and Short 2006; Jargowsky 2003) and higher concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities than newer suburbs, particularly exurban areas on the suburban fringe (Frey 2011). Nevertheless, suburban decline and rising poverty can be found presently in newer suburbs some distance away from the traditional urban core (Allard, forthcoming).

In an attempt to make sense of existing suburban heterogeneity and advance policy discussion that might be tailored to local contexts, researchers in the United States have created various suburban typologies capturing the recent demographic and economic experiences of different classifications of suburbs. These categorization schemes often sort suburban areas along a continuum of risk for rising need and economic decline. Suburban typologies seek to simplify the great complexities of suburban places today, calling attention to a mix of factors that shape the prevalence of poverty, the causal factors most salient, the lived experience of poverty, and the types of solutions and tools available to reduce poverty.

Table 2 summarizes a set of typologies from prominent recent scholarship. For example, Orfield (2002) develops a typology primarily on the relationship between levels of need and suburban fiscal conditions. Bedroom-developing suburbs are those often matching popular impressions of the prototypical suburb, with mostly white residents, low-population density, new housing stock, and a tax capacity that is just below average and growing at an average rate. Affluent job centers are suburbs that, at one time, fit the role of the prototypical suburb, but have since become more prominent hubs of regional economic activity. At-risk suburbs are those that have high social needs and municipal costs but limited or declining local resources due to low tax capacity or low growth prospects. Orfield makes distinctions between different types of at-risk suburbs, depending on whether they are racially segregated, older high-density communities, or low-density localities with higher-than-average poverty and population growth rates. Bedroom-developing suburbs, the largest group of suburbs in Orfield’s typology, compose almost half (46%) of all suburban jurisdictions. Only 10% of all poor persons in the study’s sample of metropolitan areas, however, live in bedroom-developing suburbs. Rather, the highest share of the suburban poor live in at-risk suburbs (39%), which also contain the highest share of the general population (40%).

Table 2 Summarizing Suburban Typologies


Suburban Typology



Orfield (2002)

Bedroom-developing suburbs

Mostly white, low density, new housing, below-average tax capacity growing at an average rate

Wayne, NJ; Minnetonka, MN; Skokie, IL

At-risk suburbs

High social needs and municipal costs; limited or declining local resources due to low tax capacity or low-growth prospects

Aurora, IL; Marietta, GA; Yonkers, NY

Affluent job centers

Former bedroom suburbs that have become regional economic centers

Wilmette, IL; Eden Prairie, MN; Greenwich, CT

Mikelbank (2004)

White bedroom suburbs

Predominantly white residential communities, affluent but with modest local employment opportunities

Pismo Beach, CA; Highland, UT; Madison, OH

Struggling suburbs

Shrinking manufacturing economy, low housing values, high percentages of low-income households, low levels of educational attainment

Cudahy, WI; Edinburgh, IN; Taylor, MI

Black suburbs

Similar to struggling suburbs, but tend to be more centrally located in metro area and have higher percentages of black residents

East Cleveland, OH; Washington Park, IL; East Point, GA

Suburban success suburbs

Characterized by higher incomes and higher rates of college degrees; higher rents and house values; older population

Scarsdale, NY; Alexandria, VA; Southport, NC

Working diversity suburbs

High percentage of foreign-born population; larger-than-average households

Metros in South and West US

Kneebone and Berube (2013)

Rapid growth suburbs

Above-average regional employment growth and population growth in the 2000s

Gilbert, AZ; Peoria, AZ; Sugar Land, TX

Strained suburbs

Above-average population growth, but below-average regional job growth

DeKalb County, IL; Overland Park, KS; suburban Atlanta, GA

At-risk suburbs

Below-average population growth (or outright population decline), but above-average regional employment growth

Everett, WA; Montgomery County, MD; Pasadena, TX

Distressed suburbs

Below-average population growth (or outright population decline) and below-average job growth

Lakewood, OH; Penn Hills, PA; Torrance, CA

Murphy (2010)

Symbiotic suburbs

Similar to high-poverty urban neighborhoods demographically and economically; receive antipoverty program resources; competitive tensions among community-based organizations and those operating in the city

Norristown, PA; Darby, PA; Wilkinsburg, PA

Skeletal suburbs

Older, deeply distressed suburbs economically and socially isolated with little local capacity to deliver assistance programs, rely on regional organizations

Duquesne, PA; Monessen, PA; Coatesville, PA

Overshadowed suburbs

Relatively affluent, with small and often unnoticed deep pockets of poverty; difficult to attract attention and resources to address poverty issues

West Chester, PA; Penn Hills, PA

Mikelbank (2004) develops a similar classification scheme based on racial composition and economic factors. White bedroom suburbs are predominantly white residential communities with modest local employment. Struggling suburbs are those places with shrinking manufacturing economies, low housing values, high percentages of low-income households, relatively low average levels of educational attainment, and higher-than-average numbers of single-parent families. Black suburbs share many of the same characteristics as struggling suburbs but also have higher percentages of black residents and tend to be located more centrally in a metropolitan area. More economically viable suburbs are labeled as either suburban successes, with higher incomes and higher rates of college degrees, higher rents and house values, and older populations, or working diversity communities, with high percentages of foreign-born persons. While roughly 50% of suburban communities conform to the traditional concept of a suburb, a large portion of suburban residents live in more diverse and less affluent suburbs.

Focusing on changes over the past decade, Kneebone and Berube (2013) use changes in local populations and regional labor markets since 2000 to sort suburbs into four types of jurisdictions. Rapid growth suburbs, many located in the South and West in the United States, experienced above-average regional employment growth and local population growth over the previous decade. Strained suburbs are those that experienced above-average population growth during the same time period but below-average regional job growth. At-risk suburbs experienced below-average population growth, or outright declines in population growth, but above-average regional employment growth. These suburbs are characterized by a higher-than-average share of multifamily housing, as well as an older housing stock, and are more racially and ethnically diverse than the prototypical suburb. Finally, distressed suburbs are those that experienced below-average population growth or outright declines in population growth, like the at-risk suburbs, but also experienced below-average job growth. Distressed suburbs, mostly clustered in the Midwest and the Northeast, tend to be older and more highly urbanized communities with aging infrastructure and an aging housing stock.

Furthermore, suburbs differ from one another along more than just demographic characteristics; the heterogeneity of suburbs also extends to their social, institutional, and political features. Such features are particularly relevant to how suburban communities experience poverty and approach potential solutions. Moving beyond demographic notions of suburban diversity, Murphy (2010) develops a typology of suburban locales that considers the salience of poverty, local capacity, and political will to address poverty challenges, and competitiveness for philanthropic resources. Symbiotic suburbs mirror high-poverty urban areas, with longstanding high rates of poverty and high concentrations of racial minorities. These suburbs are home to both high-need populations perceived to be deserving of support and strong community-based organizations with a history of addressing poverty; thus, they are able to obtain antipoverty program resources with relative ease. However, because organizations in symbiotic suburbs operate in close proximity to better resourced community-based organizations in the city, tensions and pressures can arise as suburban groups compete with urban groups for funding. Skeletal suburbs also have high rates of poverty, but significant declines in population and economic infrastructure have led to a hollowing out of these communities. Communities categorized as skeletal suburbs often receive significant funding for antipoverty programs that are often are delivered by large regional networked nonprofit organizations rather than small local community-based groups. Facing even more challenges are the overshadowed suburbs: relatively affluent communities with small, but deep, pockets of poverty that are often unnoticed by the public. Efforts by charitable organizations to serve these areas face the substantial challenge of drawing attention to these deep pockets of poverty and convincing public actors or private philanthropies to take action.

Suburban typologies call attention to critical elements that shape how poverty emerges in suburban areas and local responses. Certain typologies may be more relevant or useful to certain types of questions about suburban poverty. Nevertheless, these and other typologies provide useful rubrics for sorting through the complexity of and variation in suburban poverty. Typologies also may point to the types of policies and investments most relevant to a given location.

Consequences of Rising Suburban Poverty

Like other important demographic shifts, the suburbanization of poverty should have notable downstream effects for local political institutions, public safety net programs, and the response of nongovernmental actors. Because suburbs are heterogeneous, we should expect the nature of these downstream effects to vary from setting to setting, depending on the autonomy of local governments, the fragmentation of subnational governance structures, and the role of nongovernmental actors. Again, we believe the lessons from the American experience are instructive.

First, it is important to consider how the political economy of local government affects the provision of safety net assistance. In the United States and in many other settings, local jurisdictions—often municipalities or county governments—have prime responsibility for basic services, funding for education, housing and land-use planning, and strategies for economic development. It has long been argued that the logic of local political economy is such that governmental decisions about program or infrastructure expenditures will be made in a manner that seeks to maximize economic growth opportunities. Investments and spending will be targeted to lure large firms, good jobs, and more affluent taxpaying residents. Tax rates will be kept low so as to avoid losing businesses and taxpaying residents to other less expensive jurisdictions. Because all jurisdictions are theorized to operate according to the same logic, local governments are thought to be in persistent competition with each other to attract and retain businesses and affluent residents. At the same time, local government is also expected to underprovide affordable housing and/or social assistance programs that serve and may attract low-income families, as these types of activities create higher tax burdens and are thought to dampen the business climate (Downs 1997; Peterson 1981; Peterson, Rabe, and Wong 1986; Tiebout 1956). Whether real or imagined, local governments seemingly operate as if there is a trade-off between maintaining economic competitiveness and providing assistance to the poor. Such competitive considerations create obstacles to significant local provision of safety net assistance in the United States, and in decentralized governmental systems outside the United States. Instead, we observe that the provision of safety net assistance largely rests with national or central governments in many places around the globe.

The fragmentation of local governmental institutions creates a significant obstacle to developing regional or metropolitan-wide solutions that go beyond local parochialism or competitive pressures. Of particular importance in the United States is the plurality of government and school jurisdictions that are present in suburban regions. In addition to county government and agencies, many suburban regions encompass dozens of municipalities, townships, and villages, each with their own set of responsibilities, as well as multiple school districts and other quasi-governmental authorities. There is thus a lack of obvious incentives in place for different local jurisdictions to cooperate or coordinate activities with others. Even regional nonprofit organizations and philanthropies find it difficult to coordinate activity and partner across so many different bodies and entities (Allard, forthcoming; Allard and Roth 2010).

Moreover, many of the most innovative antipoverty tools or experiments being tested in the United States today are strongly linked to addressing poverty in urban areas. For example, the Harlem Children’s Zone Project is a nationally prominent approach to breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty through the provision of high-quality education and support services to children from cradle to college in the historically black and poor neighborhoods of Harlem in New York City. Yet, the Harlem Children’s Zone and similar place-based antipoverty strategies often are predicated on the high densities of low-income children, schools, and service providers that rarely are found outside the central city. In fact, suburban areas often are viewed as preferred destinations for housing voucher recipients, rather than areas requiring social assistance and programmatic investments. Residential mobility programs commonly seek to relocate low-income urban households to suburban areas where it is perceived that greater opportunities exist (Kling, Liebman, and Katz 2007; Rosenbaum 1995).

Rising suburban poverty flips these institutional logics on their heads, creating numerous challenges for local governments and communities experiencing increased need. Poverty has increased in most suburban communities, regardless of local policy choices and economic development strategies. Many suburban communities, therefore, are grappling with rising demand for social assistance programs that does not fit well with traditional local institutional capacity, mission, or budgets. Failing to address the needs of low-income households and children, however, is not likely to yield a more vibrant economic climate or a more desirable community. At the same time, the competitive logics of local political economy have not changed. Increased poverty in the suburbs may exacerbate the competitive pressures present between local suburban governments, which may lead local communities to do very little to address rising poverty.

We might also expect increasing intergovernmental tension between suburbs and their central cities as poverty rises in the periphery. To the extent that rising poverty leads suburban areas to lose some of their competitive edge in attracting employers, the stakes for attracting new economic growth opportunities may ratchet even higher. At the same time, as portrayed by Murphy’s (2010) typology, suburban jurisdictions often compete with urban centers for safety net program funding that historically has been targeted at cities. In many instances, these program funds have not increased to keep pace with increases in poverty. Conflict over safety net resources, therefore, may take on the features of a zero-sum game. Any shift in safety net resource allocation from the center to the periphery will advantage suburban communities experiencing increased need, while simultaneously disadvantaging urban centers that have not seen their poverty problems disappear.

How well local safety nets will respond to the shifting geography of poverty, however, depends on the type of programs or assistance at hand. Public cash and in-kind assistance programs largely administered and funded by the national government may respond better to spatial shifts in poverty than others. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the United States, a federally funded and administered program that provides tax credits or refunds to low-wage workers, is more easily scaled to reach need in suburban communities. Administration and financing occurs through the federal tax system with no role for local government. Thus, it is not surprising that EITC caseloads have increased in suburban areas as poverty and the number of low-wage workers has increased (Garr and Kneebone 2011). Similarly, there is evidence that participation in federally funded food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has risen significantly in suburban areas over the past decade (Allard, forthcoming; Williams and Kneebone 2014).

On the other hand, social service programs that help provide emergency assistance, job training or placement, assistance to address barriers to employment, and supports thought to help low-income households achieve greater well-being are publicly funded programs often administrated through local governments, nongovernmental organizations, or charitable nonprofit organizations. In the United States, these programs are central components of the safety net, connecting more than $100 billion annually in services to families with a variety of needs. Yet, provision of social service programs is highly dependent on local political will, the capacity of the local nonprofit service infrastructure, and the strength of local philanthropy, which vary widely across local places (Allard 2009; Murphy 2010; Murphy and Wallace 2010; Reckhow and Weir 2011). Research suggests that in most suburban places, local social service programs and nonprofit capacity lag well behind rises in poverty (Allard and Roth 2010).

Shifts in the demographic composition of suburban communities pose challenges for local governments outside of antipoverty programming, particularly if the speed of demographic change outpaces the capacity of local institutions to adapt. Whether thinking about schools, public safety, or housing authorities, local public institutions often are slow moving and hesitant to pursue nonincremental policy change. Similarly, pathways for political representation and participation in local politics often lag behind demographic change. Rapid increases in poverty, seen in the United States and in other countries over the past few decades, create urgencies and needs that simply exceed the capacity of many suburban municipal institutions. What may result are local institutions that are out of step with changing community needs and that marginalize poor persons by limiting their voice or representation within the local political process. As such, the shifting spatial distribution of poverty may create new or amplify existing racial, ethnic, and class tensions in suburban regions, which will change the tenor and tone of local policy debates around a host of issues.

Increased poverty in suburbs may create new constituencies for public and private funding for a wide array of social service programs and antipoverty initiatives. Shifting demand for intervention may manifest itself in greater public expenditures, the creation of new governmental entities or agencies, the development of new nonprofit capacity or collaboration, or greater attention from charitable philanthropy and private giving. Local agendas may become more intently focused on improving access to education or employment resources, expanding public transportation options, and rethinking affordable housing strategies. Depending on local understandings of poverty, political will, and the degree of professionalization within local government institutions, however, we might expect local responses to poverty to vary within and across suburban regions.


The pace of urbanization has accelerated over the past several decades around the globe and is expected to continue to rise going forward. This has been accompanied by a shift in the spatial location of poverty across metropolitan areas, such that poverty is present in urban centers and the suburban periphery. While there is evidence of rising numbers of poor persons and higher poverty rates in suburbs, these trends do not appear to coincide with reduced poverty rates or poverty populations in cities. Economic trends and the persistence of poverty in metropolitan areas suggest that these trends in the metropolitan geography of poverty are not temporary, nor are they likely to change anytime soon.

Poverty today is a problem that affects all corners of modern metropolitan or urbanized areas, suggesting the need to reorient the research around poverty and poverty policy. First, much of the secondary and survey data available to study poverty issues are either nationally representative samples or urban samples. As a result, there are severe data limitations that compromise our ability to generate insight into the changing geography of poverty in metropolitan areas around the globe. If we are to better understand trends in poverty within metropolitan areas, there is a need for accurate and reliable datasets that permit cross-national comparisons of poverty across urban and suburban areas over time. Improved data would not only provide more accurate spatial portraits of poverty but would also be useful in understanding the causal forces driving rising poverty in cities and suburbs. Better data also would provide researchers with opportunity to better understand how safety net and labor market policies shape poverty problems on the ground.

Second, existing research underscores the impact of living in high-poverty isolated urban or rural communities. More work should explore issues of mobility, segregation, and exclusion as they relate to the urban, rural, and suburban poor. For example, there is evidence that persons living in metropolitan areas or regions with lower levels of segregation and inequality, higher school quality, and stronger social capital experience greater economic mobility over their lifespans (Chetty et al. 2014). Similarly, research from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiments in the United States suggest that relocating to lower poverty neighborhoods can have positive effects on adult physical and mental health (Ludwig et al. 2013), as well increases in earnings in early adulthood for children in households moving to lower poverty areas (Chetty, Hendren, and Katz 2015). Future research should focus on how spatial context affects the well-being of population subgroups most likely to be isolated from mainstream society or experience limited mobility, such as working-poor immigrants, individuals with physical health limitations, households without regular access to a reliable automobile, and families that are housing unstable.

More can be done to understand the impact of rising suburban poverty on local institutions and the political economy of suburban governments. We should expect that conflicts and competition between local jurisdictions will become more central to understanding the dynamics of how safety net assistance and resources are distributed across communities or regions. But, there may be a host of regional solutions brokered through county governments, metropolitan governance, or regional charitable nonprofits and philanthropies that are successful at moving beyond the silos and competitive pressures that currently exist. Although it is popular to propose regional governance arrangements that would reduce competitive pressures between urban and suburban areas around issues of poverty (e.g., tax-base sharing, outward limits on new development, region-wide affordable housing requirements), less is known about how to cultivate regional governance in countries with little such tradition. Here, scholars may turn to examine the emergence of regional governance systems in Canada and Western Europe (Ahrend and Schumann 2014).

Finally, scholars and policymakers should find opportunities to examine how safety nets can better respond to rising poverty in suburbs. Part of the challenge is to understand whether different public cash and in-kind assistance programs may be responding to rising need outside central cities. Another challenge is to assess how nonprofit and philanthropic organizations have responded to the shifting geography of need. Answers to these questions may prove critical to enhancing the ability of public and nongovernmental actors to respond to rising need across metropolitan areas. Scholarly inquiry should weigh different policy strategies for targeting resources at underserved areas, as well as how local safety nets can cultivate new program resources so that central cities and their suburbs are not stuck in a zero-sum game. Given that suburban poverty emerges for similar reasons to urban poverty and among similar population subgroups, successful policy responses to rising need may not be all that different in suburban versus urban areas. Urban and suburban poor populations equally would benefit from policies that seek to improve earnings from low-wage jobs or reduce the instability of work in the low-wage labor market. Successful antipoverty strategies also likely hinge on delivering education and skill development programs, transportation services, affordable housing, quality early childhood programming, and health-care services to poor persons, regardless of urban or suburban location.

Despite the challenges that poverty poses to our metropolitan areas, there is reason be optimistic that metropolitan areas can develop stronger and more effective commitments to reduce poverty. Poverty is becoming a more salient issue for policymakers, philanthropists, and communities to address in suburban areas. In the coming years, we should expect a new generation of suburban nonprofit organizations and a new wave of program interventions intended to reduce poverty. Because poverty has become a metropolitan-wide problem in many settings, we may be optimistic that a greater sense of shared fate among urban and suburban municipalities will emerge. A greater sense of shared fate is key if metropolitan areas are to move beyond competitive policymaking activity and develop broad regional solutions to poverty. Finally, there is a generation of young leaders and entrepreneurs that will develop new technologies and new interventions that could prove more effective at combating poverty across urban and suburban locations of modern metropolitan areas.


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