Poverty is moving to the suburbs – the question is what to do about it

Image: IDuke/Sting at Wikimedia Commons.

The conventional image of suburbia is one of bland affluence and social homogeneity. Suburbs are where the middle classes aspire to make their nests. They are the idealised safe havens for raising children and growing old. They are where white people migrate to flee ethnic diversity.

In the United States suburbia has sprawled into vast expansions of the city: the suburbs become synonymous with the American dream. Homo Americanus’s natural habitat is supposedly the leafy suburban neighbourhood with manicured lawns and white picket fences.

So ingrained is the association between wealth and the outer circles of a city that the word “suburban” has long since become shorthand for bourgeois materialism – and an inviting target for social critics. Suburbia is where nothing happens. “Same old boring Sunday morning, old men out washing their cars,” as the song Sound of the Suburbs would have it.

For real life and social authenticity you must descend into the inner city, the locus of poverty, ethnic ghettos, human struggle and cultural vibrancy. To speak of suburban poverty used to be something of an oxymoron. 

The 21st-century poor

But not any longer. Emerging evidence of decentralised deprivation, particularly in the US, suggests that social commentators may need to start searching for a new metaphor. The rise of suburban poverty has been highlighted as one of the most significant trends that may come to characterise 21st-century cities.

Recent research by the Brookings Institute of Washington DC, for example, finds in American cities as varied as San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago and Seattle “a series of communities in transition… from outposts of the middle class to symbols of modern American poverty". Suburbia is now “home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country, and more than half of the metropolitan poor".

This side of the pond

The same thing appears to have been happening in the UK. Research by the London-based Smith Institute found the same trend in England and Wales. It found 6.8m people living in poverty in the suburbs, comprising 57 per cent of all those in poverty. It also found that this number was rising.

Between 2001 and 2011, the institute reports that the number of people living in the suburbs experiencing above-average levels of poverty rose by 34 per cent. It found a 25 per cent rise in the number of unemployed households, compared to 9 per cent elsewhere. And in the eight biggest English cities – London, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol – the suburbs had become poorer relative to inner-city areas over the same time period.

No equivalent study had looked north of the border. This is an intriguing omission, particularly given the closely drawn outcome of the recent referendum for Scottish independence. A big question in that debate was whether and to what extent Scotland is different.

Glasgow calling

Image: John Lindie via Flickr. 

I have been part of a research team that has sought to remedy this, initially by looking at Glasgow. We have sought to improve on what has been done before by developing new methods to overcome the problem of gauging whether we are observing genuine change in the urban distribution of poverty, rather than random churn in population movements. We are currently applying this to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness, and are likely to look to England and Wales in due course, so it will be interesting to see to what extent our findings match those of the Smith Institute.

In our study of Glasgow, it is worth pointing out that much of the poverty concentrates on housing estates on the edges of the city. There are one or two areas of inner-city poverty, but nothing equivalent to, say, London. Yet the wealthier suburbs are also concentrated in the outer areas. To avoid getting into what counts as suburban, which is actually much more complex than you might think, we focused on whether the indicators of poverty were moving outwards.

Sure enough, poverty became noticeably less centralised in Glasgow between 2001 and 2011. The concentration of people on income support in outer areas rose 27 per cent, while it rose 59 per cent for those on incapacity benefit, and 48 per cent for those on Job Seekers' Allowance.

This doesn’t mean that the suburbs of Glasgow are likely to become the new ghettos of deprivation any time soon: poverty is still largely concentrated in the inner cities and former council estates. But the results do provide the first evidence that the same trend that has been witnessed in England, Wales and the US is also happening in Scotland.

Why does all this matter? Welfare policy and regeneration frameworks have historically been geared towards inner cities. Fragmentation and dispersal of poverty could raise new challenges for policy developers, and additional problems of social isolation for those unlucky enough to find themselves poor in suburbia. Area-based policies, for example for support services, are most effective if those in greatest need are concentrated in particular sectors of the city.

This is therefore something that needs to be taken much more seriously by those who decide how poverty should be tackled. The more that poverty finds new places to live, the more that anti-poverty policies have to move to keep up with it. The battle against poverty in the 21st century may need to take on very different forms to what it was before.

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

Gwilym Pryce is a Professor of Urban Economics and Social Statistics and Director of the Sheffield Methods Institute at University of Sheffield.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.