“The New Suburban Poverty”: will it change the way we define the American dream?

More on a theme that I’ve written about before.

I don’t agree with every single word in this piece, but I highly recommend The New Suburban Poverty in the NYT, written by Lisa McGirr, professor of history at Harvard and the author of Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right.

McGirr calls upon a wide variety of data that shows the increasing poverty and income stratification in the nation’s suburbs, and gives a pithy history of the rise and (perhaps) fall of the suburb as a key component of the auto-dependent American Dream.

From the piece (emphasis added):

The Brookings Institution reported two years ago that “by 2008 suburbs were home to the largest and fastest growing poor population in the country.” In the previous eight years, major metropolitan suburbs had seen poverty rates climb by 25 percent, almost five times faster than cities. Nationwide, 55 percent of the poor living in the nation’s metropolitan regions lived in suburbs.

To add insult to injury, a new measure to calculate poverty — introduced by the Census Bureau just last year — darkens an already bleak picture: nationally, 51 million households had incomes less than 50 percent above the official poverty line, and nearly half of these households were in suburbs.

Why is poverty soaring in the suburbs? Part of the answer, according to the Brookings Institution, is simple demographics: More Americans live in the suburbs, so there are more poor people there, too. But the recent downturn has also had an outsize impact on suburbs, with the decline in certain categories of jobs and an end to the housing boom that drew many urbanites and immigrants to the suburbs in the first place.

And this:

At the most basic level, poor people living in suburbs face challenges gaining access to services they need, because the municipalities they live in are unaccustomed or even hostile to providing them, or are simply unable to do so. Suburbs, with their thin safety nets, are not well equipped to handle the rising demands for help. Local food pantries in suburbs across the nation are stretched beyond capacity to meet the needs of the new poor. […]

The suburban poor also face the geographic challenges of decentralized living. Car ownership is a costly, brittle lifeline in suburbs with weak public transport networks. Budget cuts often target public transportation first, hindering access to jobs, as well as services. Suburban poverty also throws into bold relief the environmental burden of the suburbs; poor people are faced with the challenge of heating and lighting spacious but energy-inefficient single-family homes.

With energy costs rising and transportation infrastructure being tested, we’re going to have to rethink our auto-dependence. I agree with McGirr on some of the policy prescriptions in the piece, although I wish the whole thing sounded a little less partisan in its politics.

Still, it’s well worth a read for anyone interested in urban — or suburban or exurban — planning.