Book Review: Confronting Suburban Poverty in America

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Inner-city slums.  Rural isolation.  The affluent suburbs.  For decades, these terms have demarcated the mental boundaries of our nation’s collective understanding of the geography of poverty and wealth in America.

Yet this geography has been changing rapidly in recent years – and neither our perceptions nor our poverty reduction policies are keeping pace.

In a new book published this week, researchers at the Brookings Institution document a trend of profound importance for municipal leaders and their communities: the rising share of poor Americans who live in the nation’s suburbs.

Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, co-authored by Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone, shows that within the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions, the suburban poor population increased by 64 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with a growth rate of 29 percent in central cities.  While urban poverty rates still remain higher, there are now more poor Americans living in suburbs (16.4 million) than in cities (13.4 million).

Although suburban communities can offer better schools, more affordable housing, or proximity to centers of job growth, individuals living below the poverty line may also experience a different set of challenges than the ones they would face in urban neighborhoods, according to the authors.  For instance, inadequate transportation places many jobs out of reach.  The nonprofit human service infrastructure – from child care to job training to emergency food assistance – is often concentrated in urban areas.

The authors make a convincing case that outdated federal policies hinder efforts to build the local capacity that is needed to address the dispersion of poverty throughout suburbia.  They identify more than 80 federal place-based anti-poverty programs that generally fund single-purpose activities within individual jurisdictions.  Organizations and governments that seek to meet multiple needs or collaborate regionally confront a myriad of regulatory hurdles.  As one example, the authors highlight a collaborative of 19 cities in the Chicago Southland suburbs that submitted a joint application for Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to be more efficient and coordinated in addressing foreclosures.  Yet these cities were only able to obtain funding separately due to concerns expressed by overly cautious federal agency staff.

To modernize federal, state and local policies, the authors propose redirecting five percent ($4 billion) of existing place-based federal programs toward a competitive Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge.  This initiative would reduce barriers to and provide incentives for collaboration among governments and nonprofits in addressing challenges that span local borders.

While the authors often write through the lens of high-capacity nonprofits that are modeling this regional, integrated approach, they also draw on local government innovations, and many of their findings and recommendations will resonate strongly with city leaders.  For instance, city officials from suburbs and other smaller communities recently featured in NLC’s new report on “Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities” identified a lack of resources and staff capacity, limited services and transportation, and funding streams that reinforce traditional silos as some of the top challenges they face in launching new initiatives on behalf of children, youth and families.  In communities such as Rapid City, S.D., the presence of what Berube and Kneebone refer to as “regional quarterbacks” – or entities with the capacity to serve as intermediaries – have been instrumental in facilitating progress.

The inflexibility of federal funds to support comprehensive, locally-driven plans has also emerged as a primary concern of municipal officials that have participated in a 13-city gang prevention network in California, many of which involve city-county collaborations working to blend and braid existing funding sources.  Federal initiatives such as the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention hold promise for improving coordination of local services for youth and their families.

Other efforts cited in the Brookings book include HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, which promotes regional housing, transportation and environmental planning, and the Department of Labor’s Pay for Success pilot, which leverages private investment to fund innovative strategies that achieve measurable employment outcomes for individuals with barriers to work.

While federal budget austerity (including sequestration cuts that fall hardest on key domestic discretionary spending programs) could make a broader restructuring of federal grants under the proposed Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge more difficult, the Challenge represents a bold and intriguing approach for better aligning the geography of the service delivery system with the new geography of poverty.  Readers will find that Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, grounded in detailed analysis, provides a carefully drawn road map for how the public, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors can channel existing resources more effectively.  The book has the potential to reshape our understanding of poverty in our nation’s communities as well as the steps that are needed to ensure that all families – regardless of where they live – have opportunities to thrive.