A Hard Look at Suburban Poverty

Lisa Schamess, Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has released a report on suburban poverty, focusing on the Puget Sound region in Washington, within the national context of growing poverty beyond city limits in many regions of the country. The report summarizes a May 2017 symposium in Seattle that drew nearly 1,000 participants.

Combating the Suburbanization of Poverty: The Future of Just, Sustainable Growth in the Puget Sound Region is the result of a partnership between CNU, King County GreenTools, and the Bullitt Foundation. The multi-faceted discussion that led to the report was held on May 2, 2017, in conjunction with CNU’s annual Congress in Seattle.

The report summarizes key points and findings from the event’s speakers, including Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution, co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America; and Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). Also speaking were local elected officials and commentators:

Dow Constantine, King County Executive
Chenoa Egawa, artist, activist, Coast Salish of the Lummi and S’Kallam Nations of Washington State
Rebecca Saldaña, Washington State Senator
Charles Ellison, political correspondent, and principal and chief strategist, B|E Strategy
Kim Powe, deputy director (acting), Puget Sound Sage
De’Sean Quinn, Councilmember, City of Tukwila
Gene Duvernoy, president, Forterra

Although most people in the Puget Sound region—and the United States—live in areas that would be considered suburban, their difficulties often receive less attention than those of people in urban or rural areas. At the same time, poverty is worsening in the suburbs: in the Puget Sound region, poverty grew by nearly 30 percent from 2005 to 2015, a rate more than double that in the urban core. Although the poverty rate is still lower overall in the region’s suburbs, 70 percent of the region’s impoverished people now live outside of primary cities.

This trend is evident throughout the United States, with 90 of 97 metropolitan areas experiencing an increase in suburban poverty between 2005 and 2015, says Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution. “Many factors, such as immigration, population change, and regional economic trends have contributed to this dispersal of poverty,” she says.

Traditional strategies for reducing poverty have limited effect in suburban settings. For example, services to alleviate poverty are often planned according to urban models and centralized in urban areas, where they are harder to get to for suburban residents, because of transportation gaps and the cost of operating an automobile. Other approaches to poverty reduction emphasize income creation through job skills and placement. Yet in Puget Sound, as in other regions, evidence suggests that merely increasing jobs and per capita GDP does little to move the needle on poverty. Increasing income is only part of the solution, says Scott Bernstein: “Saving a family a dollar is actually better than providing a dollar in income, because we don’t tax the savings. Achieving both can begin to reduce poverty.”

Bernstein, using CNT’s AllTransit and Housing and Transportation Index tools, has shown how spatial mismatch contributes to the expense of transportation and persistent suburban poverty in Puget Sound. With housing widely spread out, fewer areas that mix services and retail with housing, and most jobs concentrated in the urban core, suburban residents all pay a high premium for transportation—a reality that hits those in poverty the hardest.

Fragmentation of municipal governments in the suburbs, inadequate transit access, and overall cost of living all aggravate suburban poverty, but the important intersections of race, ethnicity, and poverty also cannot be ignored. As Kimberly Powe, acting director of Puget Sound Sage, said, “racism is a fundamental problem in our country, and before we can address poverty or any of the issues that we are talking about, we need to talk about racism.”

The report includes a summary of steps being taken by King County to address suburban poverty, and also includes the details of a CNU Legacy Project carried out in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb with great diversity, many international residents, and significant poverty. The project involved a community-based charrette and resulted in recommendations to transform three sites into walkable locations with affordable housing, retail, and choices for transit and bicycling.

The report cites three national models drawn from the work of Kneebone and colleague Alan Berube:

  • The $24 million Denver Regional Transit-Oriented Development fund, which allocates funding to create and preserve affordable housing and community services near transit stations;
  • A collaboration of 45 municipal governments and numerous organizations in Chicago’s suburban Southland area to encourage transit-oriented development and cargo-oriented development, preserve affordable housing, redevelop brownfields, and create high-value jobs;
  • Montgomery County, Maryland’s Neighborhood Opportunity Network, which unites nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups, and government to deliver services to county residents most in need—in transit-accessible locations.

Download the report.

Photo: A. McLin, via Flickr

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