16.5 Million Suburban Americans Live in Poverty

August 4, 2014

Many people consider the suburbs to be a haven for the middle-class. But a new report by the Brookings Institution paints a different picture: 16.5 million Americans residing in the nation's suburbs are living beneath the poverty line.

"Poverty has become more regional in scope," says Elizabeth Kneebone, a metropolitan policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the report. "But at the same time, it's more concentrated and it's erased a lot of the progress that we made in the 1990s." 

The Census defines poverty as a family of four that made $23,492 or less in 2012. The growth of suburban poverty has been building over the years across the country. In 2000, the percentage of people who lived in economically distressed neighborhoods was 9.1 percent compared to 12.2 percent today, according to the Brookings Institute's report.  

Suburban areas are experiencing a more rapid growth in poverty than urban areas. In 2012, 16.5 million Americans were living below the poverty line in the nation's suburbs compared with 13.5 million in urban areas. Additionally, the number of poor residents living in suburban areas has risen by 65 percent in the past 14 years—which is double the growth in urban areas, according to the report. 

While poverty has increased in many suburbs across the country, a few suburbs have seen notable decreases in recent years, including El Paso, Texas; Baton Rouge, La.; and Jackson, Miss. However, other cities have seen more rapid growth in suburban poverty than the average. Cities within North Carolina—Winston-Salem, Greensboro-High Point, and Charlotte in particular—have seen significant increases in the number of economically distressed neighborhoods and the percentage of residents in poverty, according to the Brookings report. Atlanta has 197 areas with poverty rates above 20 percent, according to the report, but had only 32 areas with that poverty rate in 2000.

Analysts say it's not just the aftermath of the Great Recession that has spurred greater poverty in American suburbs. Some low-income residents living in urban areas may have found themselves priced out of increasingly gentrified cities, leading them to explore more affordable housing options in the suburbs.

“Suburban areas are no longer just homes to middle- and upper-income households,” says Ken Johnson, a demographer at the Carsey Institute of the University of New Hampshire, which researches vulnerable communities. “There were always poor suburbs, but much of the outflow of population from urban cores to suburbs has historically been middle- and upper-income. That is less true now.”

Source: "The Rise of Suburban Poverty in America," TIME (July 31, 2014)