Face of American Poverty Now Found In Suburbs

May 28, 2013

While New Jersey may be one of the richest states in the country, it is also home to a lot of children living in low-income families. A new Brookings Institution study indicates the fastest growing population of poor people can be found in the suburbs. NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider spoke with the coauthor of the study, Elizabeth Kneebone, a Brookings Institution fellow.

Between 2000 and 2011, Kneebone says the rate of the suburban poor grew by 64 percent across the country.

“That’s more than twice the rate that we’ve seen in large cities across the country,” she pointed out. Part of the cause, she says, has been not just one, but two economic downturns that have led to typical household incomes falling and longer term residents slipping below the poverty line.

The common perception of poverty hasn’t caught up with the reality, according to Kneebone, That, she says, has led to a dearth of services for the suburban poor.

“A lot of suburban communities haven’t built up the same sorts of network and infrastructure and safety nets that urban areas have been amassing over decades,” explained Kneebone. “So many of these communities have been caught by the rapid rise in recent years and are still struggling to catch up and respond to the reality on the ground.”

In the New York-Northern New Jersey metropolitan area, Kneebone says statistics show that poverty in the primary cities has held steady over the past decade whereas poverty growth was found primarily in the suburbs.

“If you look within these suburban communities, many New Jersey communities were hit quite hard with rapidly growing poor populations over the decade and rising poverty rates.”

The rising rate of suburban poverty is not a sudden phenomenon, but a trend that can be traced as far back as the 1980s, says Kneebone.

“This is a trend that’s really been unfolding over time and picking up pace with each decade,” Kneebone said. “I think what we saw in the 2000s with the Great Recession and the effect it had on record poverty levels overall was a magnitude of increases in poor populations that we hadn’t seen in previous decades. But in terms of the shift with poverty now being a challenge that suburban communities increasingly struggle with, that’s something we’re likely to see moving forward because it’s somethings that’s been playing out over a longer trajectory.”

Kneebone also notes that improved unemployment figures aren’t good indicators of poverty rates.

“With the impact of the recession, we tend to see poverty trends lag behind changes in unemployment,” she said. “So even as the economy begins to recover it’ll take some time for that to really trickle through and show an impact on these numbers.”