The Common Good
July 2007

Picket-Fence Poverty

by Valerie Weaver-Zercher | July 2007

What does it mean to be poor in the 'burbs?

The popular equations of "poor equals urban" and "wealthy equals suburban" are less true than ever, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution. About 1 million more U.S. residents in poverty now make their homes in suburbia than in cities.

During the first half of this decade, job losses and economic recession have meant that many suburban dwellers have lost financial footing. In addition, retail and industrial jobs have been moving out of center cities for the past 30 years, and the people who hold those jobs are now following.

If employment is the pull of the suburbs for the poor, gentrification is the push. Noel Castellanos of Christian Community Development Association points to urban renewal as a significant factor in poor people's relocation to the suburbs. As downtowns remake themselves into hip places for professionals to live, many low-income residents are priced out. "Many need to relocate, and many are finding that the suburbs are the most affordable place to live," says Castellanos.

Yet jobs and houses do not define anyone, and neither one completely explains the study's findings. Apparently, the allure of suburbia is no longer confined to the middle classes. "The poor are not isolated from the American Dream," says Edith Yoder, director of Bridge of Hope National, which matches homeless women and their children with church-based mentoring groups. "We hear many Bridge of Hope applicants who want to move out of cities saying, 'I want better schools for my kids. I want safety,'" says Yoder. "I've heard women conjure up the image of the 'white picket fence.'"

BUT BEING POOR in the suburbs carries its own unique problems. Soon after Shadell Quinones moved from Brooklyn to suburban Philadelphia, she lost her job and became homeless. "Having come from the city, where you could get anywhere at any time of day or night, the lack of public transportation was a major shock," recalls Quinones, a social worker. "I was like, 'What do you mean that the bus stops at noon because they take lunch?'" Even if suburban communities are equipped with food banks and job training programs, their lack of public transportation and spread-out nature makes it hard to access such services.

The study's findings should not obscure several facts: that the poverty rate in cities is still higher than in the suburbs, and that poverty everywhere in the United States has risen in the last decade. Also, the study looked only at metropolitan areas and not at rural poverty. In addition, it's still unlikely that the rich and poor in the suburbs are now living in the same neighborhood. In fact, in many major metropolitan areas, economic growth is lopsided, occurring in suburbs on one side of the city but not the other. Even within economically diverse suburbs, poverty tends to remain invisible. "In the suburbs, the poor are still pocketed," says Yoder. "If I'm a wealthy person in the suburbs, it's still not likely that the poor are now my neighbor."

As suburbs become both more economically diverse and more sprawling, Christians concerned about both poverty and the environment may be torn between supporting low-income housing developers and siding with anti-sprawl activists. Stephen Seidel, urban programs director of Habitat for Humanity International, holds out hope that the two groups can work in harmony. He suggests that affordable housing producers can do things such as build near public transit, at relatively high densities, and with environmentally friendly building materials, as opposed to "simply plowing up greenfields." Conversely, anti-sprawl activists need to take care that their work does not simply keep poor people out of the environs to which the middle class has had access for years.

"I think what's interesting about the study is the implied resourcefulness of low-income people in their ability to assess the landscape and figure out where the opportunities are best for them in terms of jobs, schools, and housing," Seidel adds. "Their aspirations are not all that different from the rest of society's."

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

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