In thousands of suburbs across the country, the strengthening U.S. economic recovery is helping to restore local housing markets, improve job prospects and boost household incomes.
But among metro areas hit hardest by the Great Recession, suburban neighborhoods have seen some of the greatest increases in poverty, according to a new study by the Brookings Institution. And the biggest increases came in neighborhoods already struggling with high rates of poverty.
The recession reversed the economic gains that helped reduce poverty rates in the late 1990s. But it also has concentrated poverty in suburban communities, many of which now have higher poverty rates than the inner cities they surround.
“In some cases these neighborhoods were last out (of poverty) in the 1990s,” said study author and Brookings fellow Elizabeth Kneebone. “When the economy turned down, they were first to register those effects once again.”
During the 2000s, the poor population living in high-poverty urban neighborhoods grew by 21 percent to reach 5.9 million. In the suburbs it more than doubled, swelling by 105 percent to reach 4.9 million.
By the end of the decade, suburbs were home to nearly as many high-poverty census tracts as cities, based on American Community Survey data from 2008-2012. Almost half of all metro area poor residents in high-poverty tracts lived in suburbs.
During the 2000s, all but three of the top 100 metro areas saw a rise in the number of suburban poor living in high-poverty communities, defined as those with 20 percent or more in poverty, or distressed neighborhoods, where 40 percent or more live in poverty. Metro areas in the South posted some of the biggest increases, including in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Augusta, Georgia; Greenville, South Carolina; and Atlanta.
Based on the 2008-2012 data, some 38 percent of poor suburban residents lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or more—up from 27 percent in 2000.
In some cases, poverty has become more deeply concentrated in these areas because more low-income households have moved to the regions even as the overall population has increased. In other cases, declining urban centers prompted higher-income families to move, leaving the lower-income households behind.
As poverty becomes more concentrated, the process can become more difficult to reverse, according to Kneebone. People living in the poorest neighborhoods are more likely to experience worse health outcomes, higher crime rates, failing schools and fewer job opportunities—all of which make it harder for them to move out of poverty.