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In the Suburbs and Unemployed

People in big cities make up a smaller chunk of the unemployed than they used to. At the beginning of the decade, central cities were home to 38 percent of the unemployed in the country’s largest 100 metro areas. Today that fraction is down to about 33 percent. Meanwhile, 6.4 million people are unemployed in the suburbs--more than double the number in cities.

In part, this spread of the unemployed to suburbia tracks the suburbanization of the labor force as a whole; to wit, the difference between city and suburban unemployment rates held fairly steady throughout the decade. But such a large unemployed population in the suburbs presents new and different challenges for economic recovery.

First is the question of access. A more geographically dispersed unemployed population may pose added barriers to information about steady job opportunities. It means new transportation challenges, especially for lower-income workers who may not have regular access to a vehicle (and despite what you might have heard, it’s still the disadvantaged who are bearing the brunt of this recession).

Second is what unemployment may leave behind in the suburbs if not addressed effectively. U.S. poverty increased significantly in both cities and suburbs from 2007 to 2008, a year when unemployment was still much lower than its current double-digit levels.  Though we won’t have data on poverty in 2009 until fall 2010, we can expect significantly higher poverty rates next year.

According to our new Suburbanization of Poverty report, poverty may increase to the tune of about 2.2 percentage points for large metropolitan areas as a group, based on 2009 unemployment rates. Increases will be largest in regions most affected by the downturn, such as Florida, the interior West, and auto communities of the Midwest. Suburbs in these regions seem likely to share equally in, if not bear the brunt of, spikes in poverty. A recent analysis by community type finds suburbs experienced a disproportionate uptick in food stamp receipt in the first year of the recession--particularly in the West. However, the type of suburb matters; exurbs had the highest increase in unemployment, yet saw below-average growth in food stamp enrollment.  This brings questions of access to service providers, transportation, and jobs even further to the forefront of debate.