The “suburban depression”

The ongoing economic crisis has hit a lot of sectors of American society. Some new data suggests the economic crisis has particularly hit the suburbs, the proverbial “land of milk and honey” in American life:

There has not been so large a portion of Americans in poverty since 1993. But this time the growth in poverty is different, hitting whites and suburbia harder than it did during the early 1990s slump…

The suburban poverty rate is 11.8 percent, a level not seen since 1967…

A key factor in the rise in suburban poverty may be the fact that the housing market has played such a central role in the economic slump.

Many suburbs have seen a vast amount of wealth erased by declining housing markets and mortgage foreclosures, resulting in a great deal of economic dislocation. Since white Americans are more likely to own homes than African Americans, this could also explain why whites have fared worse than they did in the 1990s while African Americans have fared better.

The interpretation here is that with homes losing a significant portion of their value, an investment vehicle that many suburbanites had relied on has proven to be a hindrance instead. I would want to see more data: how does the growth of the poverty rate in the suburbs compare to cities and rural areas? If you look at the Census 2010 figures, the poverty rate for central cities is 19.7% (14.8% for metropolitan regions) and it is 16.5% outside of metropolitan areas. While falling housing prices may be part of the problem, what about jobs – are a higher percentage of lost jobs suburban jobs? I haven’t seen anyone write about this jobs link.

This data also affects two other larger ideas narratives about suburbs:

1. Life in the suburbs is not supposed to get worse; rather, it is supposed to always get better. Have we simply reached the point where the standard of living and incomes simply can’t rise much more?

2. There is evidence from recent years that more poor people live in the suburbs than in cities. While the percentages of poor people are lower in the suburbs, the absolute numbers are higher. This is part of a growing trend: the suburbs aren’t just (and never totally were) where wealthy whites can live.

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