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Suburbanization of Poverty

Poverty in the USofA is generally regarded as an urban phenomenon.  This belief has very long roots that go back to our origins as a largely agricultural nation where cities grew primarily with immigration – people who had nothing but a strong back and a desire to work.  Constant growth and government policy maintained this situation until very recently, but that is changing.

In 2008 the Brookings Institution found that suburban poverty was increasing at an alarming rate across the nation.  In many urban areas the suburban poor outnumber those in the inner city – and suburban poverty rates are growing at five times the urban average.  In the Minneapolis-St Paul urban area, 54% of the poor lived in suburbs as of 2008 and this trend is growing.

There are deep social and political changes that can be expected from this change, which should only continue.

Before the Civil War the belief in poverty as an urban problem was discussed in many of the same terms used to define poverty today.  The urban poor were seen as a drag by the South and were part of the rhetoric used to justify their split 150 years ago in vivid terms.  In the “Long Depression” of 1893 urban poverty reached a critical point, spurring the development of labor unions and the rise of Progressive politics.  The great waves of immigration at the heart of the developing cities slowed by the Great Depression of 1929, and post WWII America should have entered a period where everything evened out.

Anyone who studies urban history can see how great slums are nothing more than a reflection of tremendous upheaval and change.  My own neighborhood, Irvine Park, was the rich neighborhood in Saint Paul from the 1850s into the 1890s.  When the transportation infrastructure was extended “up the hill”, we fell on hard times that lasted three generations.  That changed when the stately old mansions near the Mississippi were fixed up and the general value of living within walking distance of Downtown became appreciated.

It’s very similar what happened in Manhattan – once a place where neighborhoods like Tribeca were home to roving gangs but are now completely unaffordable by all but the richest.  It’s all a matter of transportation infrastructure and commute time.

In the 1950s, a tremendous investment in highways made it possible for people who worked in cities to live quite far away.  The resulting flight more or less abandoned our cities just when they should have started seeing the fruits of a century of development.  Direct intervention by government created the highway system that reinforced the old idea that cities were slums that needed to be left behind.  As long as commute times stayed under about an hour and the cost wasn’t too great, the system worked.

This massive government intervention was popular because it came from a deep cultural belief.  But it was only stalling the inevitable.  Cities are more than warehouses for the poor, they are centers of economic opportunity.

That is becoming increasingly obvious – and this trend will continue.

We can see this trend continuing on as the Managed Depression of 2001 became more severe after the 2008 Brookings report on increasing suburban poverty.  In 2010 the Minnesota Home Ownership Center found that suburban foreclosure rates were higher (pdf!) than those in the inner city.  Downward mobility in the suburbs is only accelerating.

Our politics hardly reflects these changes.  This is only reasonable when you consider how ancient the belief is that cities are great slums full of the poor and how much public money we’ve spent to reinforce this belief over time.  Those who are experiencing increasing poverty in their own communities are probably among the most angry, given that this is a developing phenomenon that has yet to settle out.  But it will.

How long will everyone stay angry?  What would happen if a lifestyle, highly dependent on subsidies to roads, actually got the smaller government it often demands?

The suburbanization of poverty is a very strong trend with long and deep implications that will take years to settle out.  But it is nothing more than a natural trend that constantly plays out in a smaller scale – unless there is intervention to stop it.   The politics in place will only encourage this phenomenon for reasons that it will not understand, causing us to walk rather blindly into a future where “conventional wisdom” will be overturned.  Fasten your seatbelts.

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10 thoughts on “Suburbanization of Poverty

  1. This is a huge development and I would like to hear more about it. I can see now what you have been getting at with your historical pieces earlier. I don’t doubt that the McMansions will be abandoned someday in favor of something easier to maintain but to think of this as a long term trend really changes my mindset.

    Thanks as usual. This is just breathtaking.

  2. I was in France once and I remember people talking about how only the very rich could afford to live in Paris. Regular workers live and work out in the suburbs which is where the manufacturing jobs are. I thought at the time (it was the 80’s) that it was weird that it was so backwards from what we do but I see that we are going that way more all the time.

    You’re argument that this is about things not being settled and a lot of government subsidy makes a lot of sense. I can see the value of looking at history and other cultures to see where we are likely to go & appreciate what you have to say. I will keep thinking about this one, thought, because it is a big change from what I am used to seeing in the US.

  3. OK, so if I buy this we’re going to have people living on culdesacks on half acre tracts who are welfare kings and queens? Sorry, but that just doesn’t sound plausable.

  4. Dale, I think you’re right on.

    Bob, if you’re trying to force coded language on me I won’t bite. But imagine chopped-up “McMansions” with several units full of people who get by on the margin, some of them on public assistance, and you have not just the future of many suburbs – you have the today of some suburbs in places like Los Angeles. Read the Brookings report – it’s very interesting.

    Anna, common sense always wins out in the long run, much like market forces do. Of course, in the long run, we’re all dead. 🙂

  5. OK I read the 1 page Brooking report you hyper- linked (thanks). But I still don’t quite get it. I read a similar report in City Pages many years ago. I get the land use and energy arguments. But it seems like we are getting cluster cities now or at least cluster medical centers. Where is the center anymore?
    Could we end up with a bunch of circulating buses if some of the street patterns in suburbs were reworked. An immense undertaking perhaps but perhaps not cul de sacs have their arteries. Maybe this is a civil engineering or social engineering problem. Please respond.

  6. It is a strange thing, Dan. When I’d pass a farm that was giving way to development I used to joke, “Shoulda used more suburbacide.” Soon, however, we’ll see the results of investing so heavily in a monoculture – one crop, one way of doing things, one way to get around.

    Saint Paul was laid out as a trolley city, which can still be seen on Grand, Randolph, Selby/Marshall, et cetera. Things occur in lines, not at nodes per se. It’s been retrofitted for cars pretty heavily over the years, but the original uses remain largely intact. A place designed entirely for cars, however, won’t make such an easy conversion. You’ll see more malls fill out to eat their parking lots, for example, but distance will always be a problem. Extra wide streets will have plenty of room to retrofit (unlike narrow little streets like Randolph east of Hamline, a mere 66′!) but the final leg to houses will be tricky, I’m sure.

    But it will happen at some point, I’m quite sure, unless a very cheap source of energy is identified that can be concentrated into a small enough space to power an automobile as efficiently as the cheap petrol that defined these places in the first place. We’ll just have to see what happens.

  7. Distributed land use around the centers that Dan mentions has a lot of advantages. I don’t think we can say what the transportation system of tomorrow will be but it is probably a mix of cars, trains, buses, ect. More and more suburbs are going to that kind of center and I think it will work out. But the original point of it all evening out like small versions of the big city is probably right all the same.

  8. Yes I drove in Bloomington today which I don’t often do, as I am more often in the pockmarked by lakes northern metro. This was an area of modest ramblers but the streets and front yards were huge and could use retrofitting. Have no idea what the backyards looked like. On to another topic one of what I think may be under reported. If you took away the union jobs in hospitals (which I would consider quasi governmental) the union jobs on government construction projects, there would be virtually no private sector union jobs left.

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