Why poverty is rising faster in US suburbs than in US cities

An American suburb. Image: jansgate/Flickr/creative commons.

In the U.S., the geography of poverty is shifting.

According to a May report from the Pew Research Center, since 2000, suburban counties have experienced sharper increases in poverty than urban or rural counties.

This is consistent with research across the U.S. over the past decade – as well as my own book, “Places in Need.”

The suburbanisation of poverty is one of the most important demographic trends of the last 50 years. Poverty rates across the suburban landscape have increased by 50 per cent since 1990. The number of suburban residents living in high poverty areas has almost tripled in that time.

These new trends are not just occurring in the wake of the Great Recession. In 1990, there were nearly as many poor people in the suburbs of the largest 100 U.S. metropolitan areas as within the cities of those metros, even though poverty rates historically have been much higher in cities.

Why is poverty rising faster in suburbs than in cities? There are many reasons. Population growth in suburbs plays a part – the U.S. has become a suburban nation. However, that’s not the most important factor. My research finds that suburban poverty is growing three times faster than population size in suburban communities across the country.

As in cities and rural communities, poverty is rising in suburbs because of the changing nature of the labour market. For those in low-skill jobs, earnings have stayed flat for the last 40 years. In most suburbs, unemployment rates were twice as high in 2014 as in 1990. Good-paying jobs that don’t require advanced training have started to disappear in suburbs, just as they did in central cities more than a quarter century ago.


These national employment trends have contributed to rising poverty everywhere, but the impact has been particularly acute in suburbs, where there are a large per centage of workers without advanced education or vocational training.

Rising suburban poverty has surprising implications for the safety net. Many suburbs lack the resources needed to respond to growing poverty. For example, I’ve found the typical urban county spends nearly 10 times as much on human service programs per low-income person as the typical suburban county.

What can be done? I have a few suggestions.

First, the U.S. must maintain federal funding of safety net programs like food stamps, which are effective at reducing poverty. Increasing public funding of human service programs too will help to support those weathering a spell of unemployment or seeking to advance in the labour market. And communities must find ways to cultivate a new generation of local leaders and nonprofit organisations capable of tackling suburban poverty challenges.

Finally, poverty problems continue to rise, albeit at slower rates, in cities and rural communities. Across geographic boundaries, the nation has a shared interest in the fight against poverty. If we cannot come together on this issue, we will not be successful in that fight in any one place – urban, rural or suburban.

Scott W. Allard, Professor of Social Policy, University of Washington.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.