To be poor and isolated by sprawl

The character of US suburbs is changing and becoming poorer — especially in the Midwest, but also significantly in the Northeast and South, according to a report in Next American City.

The article profiled Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, a social service agency in Lake County, Illinois, that saw its clients rise sevenfold in the last eight years — from 500 to 3,500. Many of the poor served by the agency, which is surrounded mostly be sprawl, don’t drive or can’t always afford to take a car.

“There’s no public transportation, so people can have a hard time getting to us,” says Carolina Duque, who runs the agency. “When the weather is good, we have people walking to get to us.”

That may involve walking along the shoulder of state highways and crossing busy arterial roads.

The report cites a Brookings study that provides a broad picture of rising suburban poverty:

“Between 2000 and 2008, suburbs in the country’s largest metro areas saw their poor population grow by 25 percent — almost five times faster than primary cities.” This demographic tilt translates to large suburbs being home to 1.5 million more poor people than their primary cities.

Among the causes of rising poverty in the suburbs are an influx of immigrants, especially Latinos — many of whom are moving to suburbs directly, without living in a city first. “The promise of plentiful jobs and affordable housing in the suburbs is a powerful lure indeed, but it may be a false one — and the reality may be simply a different set of problems and new categories of costs,” according to the report.

The higher transportation costs of the suburbs are not always immediately apparent to poor moving to such locations. The article cites research by the Center for Neighborhood Technology “showing that the time, money and fuel required in far-flung suburbs dramatically reduces those areas’ affordability.”

Initiatives to deconcentrate poverty, such as affordable housing laws in New Jersey that require every municipality to take on a certain burden of low-income housing, as well as smaller-level efforts, such as the Seattle Housing Authority’s 1995 decision to tear down a stock of public housing and replace it with options ranging from subsidized rental units to homes selling in the hundred-thousands, may exacerbate the problem, according to the report. “Such government initiatives have grown out of sociological arguments saying that spreading poverty around, so to speak, lessens the secondary effects, such as crime rates.”

When the poor arrive in suburbs in rising numbers, they are confronted with a “spatial mismatch,” according to the report. “People in one section of the suburbs can’t get to another section. There’s a mismatch between where the poor are living and where the services are that they need,” according to Joyce Kissane, an assistant professor of sociology at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

The end result is that the poor have less contact with social services agencies.

Evidence of this can be seen in the number of people taking advantage of government assistance. As the 2010 Brookings report notes, “Suburbs in general, though home to more poor than their primary cities, showed lower rates of food stamp receipt than their city counterparts in 2008 — 39.2 percent of poor families in cities used food stamps in that year compared to 32 percent of suburban poor families.”