Why Federal Programs Have Struggled With the Suburbanization of Poverty

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A cyclists rides pa, ... ] Richard Vogel / AP Photo

 

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As poorer populations have shifted to the suburbs, anti-poverty programs have had difficulties adapting to broader regional challenges.

Suburbs are home to the U.S.’s largest, fastest-growing poor population and “regional quarterbacks” are needed to weave together disparate federal and state anti-poverty grants on behalf of ailing jurisdictions.

The U.S. passed a tipping point in the 2000s, and as of 2015 there were 3 million more poor people in suburbs than in cities and 8 million more than in rural communities.

Far from an isolated occurrence, the trend is evident in most of the 100-largest U.S. metropolitan areas, prompting Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program fellow Elizabeth Kneebone to co-write a book, “ Confronting Suburban Poverty in America ,” a few years ago.

From Rust Belt to Sun Belt metros, and even stronger markets like Seattle, Portland, Oregon, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C., 41 percent of the suburban poor live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 20 percent or higher. Being “poor in a very poor place” limits residents’ pathways out of concentrated poverty, Kneebone told the 25th annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Seattle last month.

Migration to the suburbs, with many new immigrants bypassing cities, accounted for a third of their growth in the 2000s—outgrowing cities.

Affordable housing was one draw, as voucher households shifted to the the suburbs, but so were more abundant retail and manufacturing jobs.

The “new normal” presents “new challenges,” Kneebone said.

“Suburbs often tend to lack access to things like public transit,” she said. “If it is available to low-income communities, the service tends to be less frequent, the connectivity is weaker than what you might find in an urban center.”

The result is “spatial mismatch,” as Route Fifty recently explored in Carmel, Indiana , meaning the number of accessible job and education opportunities is smaller for the poor living in these communities.

A myth that low-income communities are limited to cities persists, resulting in philanthropic funding mostly being funneled to urban areas. The problem is exacerbated by the fact nonprofits tend to locate themselves in cities.

Suburban governments, Kneebone said, generally lack the staff to effectively apply for federal anti-poverty funds.

“Why is some of this federal funding not keeping up?” she asked. “It’s because it was designed with a very different geography of poverty in mind, and it has actually proven pretty inflexible and difficult to adapt to this broader regional footprint.”

The federal government spends $82 billion on 81 place-based, anti-poverty programs across 10 agencies formed around inner-city challenges.

A handful of regional quarterbacks, as Kneebone called them, have successfully united partners to scale and strategically fund anti-poverty initiatives.

After the foreclosure crisis, the Chicago Southland Housing & Community Development Collaborative was formed by 19 (now 25) suburban municipalities to pool the seed funding needed to hire a quarterback to navigate the complex anti-poverty grant process at the federal level. The collaborative has received $30 million in grants, a 50-to-1 return on local investment put toward combating blight, affordable housing preservation, redevelopment, a local land bank, and data to inform decision-making.

Kneebone also cited Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties but also home to a fast-growing poor population. The county leaders recognized that their jurisdiction, which neighbors Washington, D.C., is majority-minority and that its large foreign-born population isn’t connecting well with services.

The county used data to identify its highest-need neighborhoods and partner with trusted nonprofits and grassroots organizations located near public transit in those areas, co-locating services in more accessible places in the community.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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