Despite what you may have heard, poverty rates in suburbs are on average half what they are in urban centers

There’s a growing chorus about the so-called suburbanization of poverty. A couple of years ago, Alan Ehrenhalt’s Great Inversion argued that the wealthy and well-educated are moving to cities and the poor are being displaced to suburbs, in essence reversing the historical pattern of urban settlement in the US. The Brookings Institution has issued a series of reports noting that the number of poor persons living in suburbs has increased faster in cities. A new book from the University of Washington’s Scott Allard is the latest in a series of reports that focus on poor people living in suburbs.

There’s a political sub-text to all of these arguments: You can’t escape or ignore poverty simply by moving to the suburbs. As a result, the argument goes, you’ve got to be a supporter of an anti-poverty agenda, no moatter where you live; poverty isn’t just an urban issue.because its not confined only to cities.  So if you’re elected to Congress, whether you represent an urban district or a suburban one, you ought to support programs that fight poverty. Brookings’ Elizabeth Kneebone makes this point explicitly; her report chronicles suburban poverty rates by congressional district, and she tells The Atlantic in a story entitled “Rising suburban poverty is a bi-partisan problem

“The numbers really underscore how cross-cutting an issue poverty is—it’s not just a red or a blue issue or an inner-city or suburban issue.”

Fair enough. We ought to be willing to fight poverty whereever its present. While we understand the value of political talking points that can help build a broader geographic constituency for the federal programs–like Section 8 vouchers, food stamps (SNAP), and the earned income tax credit–all of which do wonders to blunt the effects of poverty, we worry that the attention focused on suburban poverty has tended to overshadow the fundamentally urban character of poverty, especially concentrated poverty.

The Atlantic underscored this in its reporting of earlier Brookings work in 2014.  “Fully 88 percent of Atlanta’s poor live in the suburbs,” they noted.  That seems like a huge number, until you realize that the City of Atlanta accounts for only about 8 percent of the population of the Atlanta metropolitan area–which means the city has about a 50 percent larger share of the region’s poor than it does of the region’s population. Most of the poor live in the suburbs because, according to the way municipal boundaries are drawn in the Peach State, almost everyone lives in a suburb. (As we’ve discussed at City Observatory, at least one Atlanta suburb has hit on its own strategy for fighting suburban poverty: it uses tax dollars to buy up and demolish affordable apartments; but that’s another story).

The case for the suburbanization of poverty appears in a new book, Places in Need from the University of Washington’s Scott Allard.  In an interview with CityLab last week, he summarized the argument:

Does every type of suburb have a poverty problem?

A lot of our discourse around suburban poverty says, “Well, suburban probably is really a problem for old inner-tier suburbs that are bordering higher poverty neighborhoods in cities.” But poverty is pervasive across the suburban regions of all metro areas, whether they’re new or old. In fact, the rates of change have been more severe in newer suburbs—those built after 1970—than in older suburbs. When you break out the suburban regions, there are more poor people in the newer suburbs combined than in the older suburbs.

Claiming that poverty is “pervasive” is at best misleading.  Poverty is highly unevenly distributed across metropolitan areas, and is far more concentrated in urban centers. Simply counting the number of poor in suburbs and noting that its growing, dramatically mis-characterizes the geography of poverty in US metro areas.  The best way to understand this is to look at the University of Virginia’s Luke Juday‘s charts of the poverty rate of US metro areas computed by distance from the central business district.  On this chart, the orange line shows poverty rates in 1990, and the purple and blue lines show poverty in 2010 and 2015 respectively.

There are two ways of looking at these data:  level and change.  When it comes to the level of poverty, its generally the case that poverty rates are highest in the center, and the further you live from the center of a metropolitan area, the lower the poverty rate (there’s a modest uptick in poverty beyond 20 miles from the center.  In general though, poverty rates within five miles of the urban center are more than 20 percent, and poverty rates 10 or more miles from the center are about 10 percent.

The other way of looking at the data is in terms of change.  And its fair to note that poverty rates have ticked down slightly in the absolute center of metro areas (within about 2-3 miles from the center, poverty rates have declined about 2-3 percentage points over the past 15 years or so). And beyond 5 miles from the center, poverty rates are uniformly a few percentage points higher than they were in 1990. The poverty curve has flattened very slightly. Poverty rates in suburbs are not as low as they were a couple of decades ago, but we’re no where near the “great inversion” where poverty rates are higher in suburbs than in cities.

The other thing that this telling of suburban poverty leaves out is the crucial role that concentrated poverty plays in perpetuating intractable, multi-generational problems. Its bad enough to be poor, but all of the negative effects of living in poverty are amplified by being in a place where a high fraction of one’s neighbors are also poor: you get higher crime, fewer job opportunities, worse schools and public services, and the cumulative effect of this disadvantage is to permanently lower the life chances of the kids who grow up in these places. The results of the “moving to opportunity” studies show that poor kids who are able to move to lower poverty places have measurably better personal and economic outcomes than their otherwise identical peers who remain in high poverty neighborhoods.

And what the data show is that neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are still disproportionately found in cities. Last month, the Joint Center on Housing Studies at Harvard released its annual state of the nation’s housing report, which took a close look at the geography of concentrated poverty. The JCHS report looked at extremely poor neighborhoods, those with poverty rates of 40 percent or higher (where the effects of concentrated poverty are the most pernicious). They divided the nation’s metropolitan neighborhoods into three categories, based on density.  Some 60 percent of those living in these very poor neighborhoods lived in the densest third of metropolitan neighborhoods. Strikingly, concentrated poverty was about 5 times more prevalent in the densest third of neighborhoods as in the least dense third of neighborhoods (59 percent vs. 12 percent).

There’s nothing wrong with making the point that there are at least some poor people in most neighborhoods in the United States, and that holds whether those neighborhoods are urban or suburban. And as American population has increasingly decentralized more people, including more poor people, live in suburbs. But those observations shouldn’t distract us from the point that the most devastating and pernicious form of poverty is concentrated poverty, and concentrated poverty is still a disproportionately urban problem.