Here is a look at how poverty is being addressed in the Atlanta suburbs:
This is not an indictment of Cobb County in particular. Rather, what’s happening in Cobb is a microcosm of the dilemma facing suburbs nationwide: a rapid spike in the number of poor people in what once were the sprawling beacons of American prosperity. Think of it as the flip side of the national urban boom: The poverty rate across all U.S. suburbs doubled in the first decade of the millennium—even as America’s cities are transforming in the other direction, toward rising affluence and hipster reinvention. If the old story of poverty in America was crumbling inner cities and drug-addled housing projects, the new story is increasingly one of downscale strip malls and long bus rides in search of ever-scarcer jobs. We can’t understand what’s working in America’s cities unless we also look at what’s not working in the vast suburbs that surround them.
And there’s a lot about Atlanta’s suburbs that isn’t working. Suburban poverty exploded here between 2000 and 2011, rising by 159 percent. Now, 88 percent of the region’s poor people live in suburbs. On its face, there is nothing remarkable about that statistic; after all, metro Atlanta is huge (8,300 square-miles, about the size of Massachusetts), and its population keeps rising (it’s now almost 6 million, equivalent to the population of Missouri). But fewer than 10 percent of us live in the city of Atlanta itself. So it would stand to reason that most poor people are suburbanites; most metro Atlantans are suburbanites, period…
For suburban Atlanta, as in suburbia nationwide, this shift presents some vexing problems. Designed around a car-centric culture of single-family homes clustered in cul-de-sacs served by strip centers and shopping malls, and fueled by jobs reached by commuting to downtown or suburban office parks, suburbs like Cobb County have struggled to respond to denser populations, increased congestion and, as a result of the 2008 recession, a decline in the middle-class jobs that made it all possible. Suburban Atlanta voters, including in Cobb County, have consistently rejected mass transit that might relieve their car dependency. And county zoning ordinances have continued to favor single-family housing over denser development, exacerbating the problem for the poor who are clustered there in ever greater numbers…
Here’s the most complicated problem with poverty in the suburbs: It’s almost invisible. There are 86,000 people in Cobb County who live below the poverty level. But you could live in Cobb your whole life and never see them, or at least not knowingly. Cobb County covers 339 square miles and is home to 717,000 people. Its poor residents can be lost in the crowd—and lost in all that space.
An interesting look at the myriad problems that makes addressing suburban poverty harder: lack of transportation options besides cars, limited social services that tend to be spread out, race and class differences that get reified through political and economic decisions, and limited recognition of suburban poverty.
Just a note: we need more sociological research on suburban poverty and suburban patterns in Sunbelt metropolitan regions that may be less segregated than Northern cities but are also more sprawling.
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