You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Recession, Poverty, and the Suburbs

Ever since we got our first glimpse of the Great Recession’s impact on metropolitan poverty with last year’s release of the 2008 American Community Survey (ACS), we suspected the 2009 ACS would contain even more dismal results. But when the data appeared last week, the rise in poverty, especially in certain metro areas, superseded even our pessimism.

Over the first year of the recession, 16 of the 100 largest metro areas in the country saw a significant uptick in the share of people living below the federal poverty line ($21,954 for a family of four in 2009). Add the second year to the equation--which saw the downturn deepen and spread to other industries--and fully 57 metro areas experienced significant increases in their poverty rates over the two-year period.

 Sun Belt metro areas like Bradenton and Lakeland in Florida and Bakersfield and Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario in California lead the list of metro areas experiencing significant poverty growth over the course of the recession, reflecting the extent to which these areas have been affected by the fallout of the housing market collapse and subsequent economic downturn. And not surprisingly, a number of manufacturing metro areas in the Midwest--areas that experienced job losses even in advance of the recent recession--also saw poverty rise significantly, including Cleveland and Detroit.

What’s more, within the nation’s largest metro areas suburbs have borne the brunt of growing poverty, not just during the Great Recession, but since the start of the decade. Since 2000, suburbs have seen the number of poor residents increase by 37 percent--well above the national growth rate and more than double the pace of growth seen in the city poor population. And while the second year of the Great Recession brought a similar magnitude of increases in both city and suburban poverty, by 2009 the suburbs were still home to 1.6 million more poor than cities.

These trends underscore the fact that the idea of poverty as a strictly urban issue is outdated. Urban areas continue to struggle with persistent poverty just as suburban areas must adapt to a rapidly growing poor population. The upshot is that the challenges of poverty are increasingly metropolitan. That means policymakers need to think strategically about regional issues like housing, transportation, job growth, and workforce development. Looking at these issues across policy silos and city and county boundaries can help foster strategies and development that will better connect low-income workers to affordable housing and employment opportunities across the region, giving them a chance to work their way up the economic ladder and out of poverty.

These trends also have implications for the social safety net and the ways we connect low-income families to work supports and benefits that help combat poverty. Traditionally, these services have been concentrated in urban centers. Thus, piecemeal and less-developed suburban social safety nets have come under growing pressure over the past several years, and particularly during the latest downturn, as they have faced increasing demand for their services just as budgets and resources have diminished. Recent work on social service providers in the suburbs of L.A., Chicago, and Washington, D.C. by Scott Allard and Benjamin Roth at the University of Chicago demonstrates these pressures definitively using a combination of data from the Census Bureau and the IRS combined with substantial fieldwork. We’ll be reporting out on some of the implications of their work soon.