Rapidly growing suburban poverty illustrated in Ferguson, Missouri

Communities like Ferguson, Missouri illustrate growing rates of poverty in many American suburbs:

In Ferguson, Missouri, a community of 21,000 where the poverty rate doubled since 2000, the dynamic has bred animosity over racial segregation and economic inequality. Protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9 have drawn international attention to the St. Louis suburb’s growing underclass…

Such challenges aren’t unique to Ferguson, according to a Brookings Institution report July 31 that found the poor population growing twice as fast in U.S. suburbs as in city centers. From Miami to Denver, resurgent downtowns have blossomed even as their recession-weary outskirts struggle with soaring poverty in what amounts to a paradigm shift…

Ferguson, once a majority white community that’s now about two-thirds black, highlights that dynamic. Coinciding with the decline in white population is a rapid rise in poverty since 2000, a period that includes the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009…

“Looking at the neighborhood poverty rates, it’s striking how much has changed over a decade,” Kneebone said. “In Ferguson in 2000, none of the neighborhoods had hit that 20 percent poverty rate. By the end of the 2000s, almost every census tract met or exceeded that poverty rate. That’s a really rapid change in a really short time.”

As the Brookings Institution has pointed out and nicely summarized, there are now more people in poverty in suburbs than cities. Of course, just as in cities, the poor in suburbs aren’t evenly distributed across neighborhoods or communities. The demographic shift in Ferguson is common: a community adjacent to or close to the big city – an inner-ring suburb – that offers more low-skill jobs or cheaper housing experiences an influx of non-white residents. In response, whites in the community leave, just as they tended to do in urban neighborhoods during “white flight” in the decades after World War II. The transition period can be tough: these suburban communities aren’t prepared to provide public services, whites remain in powerful local positions even as they represent a smaller percent of the residents, and less wealthy residents can contribute to a declining tax base. All the while, wealthy suburban communities can isolate themselves through zoning, restricting bike lanes, limiting affordable housing, and other means.

In other words, police violence is still limited in most suburbs but the growing issues of class and race are only going to continue to grow in many suburban communities.

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