More findings on poverty in the suburbs

Following Confronting Suburban Poverty in America published in 2014 comes a new book – titled Places in Need and also published by Brookings – with additional findings regarding suburban poverty:

Allard spent years studying Census data and speaking with social service providers across the country, and discovered that while concentrated poverty is still a stubborn issue in cities, it’s also becoming a much larger issue in suburbs. In 1990, there were 8.6 million poor people in the suburbs and 9.5 million in the city. In 2014, the numbers had shifted; 17 million poor Americans living in the suburbs, while 13 million poor were in cities. And it’s not just in the inner-ring suburbs; roughly two-thirds of poor suburbanites live in communities built after 1970, and poverty is growing fastest in suburbs built after 1990…

Allard also found that concentrated poverty was on the rise in the suburbs. He looked at areas with a 20 percent poverty rate, lower than the traditional 30 to 40 percent poverty rate used in many studies, and found many more people in traditional suburban areas falling into this threshold. At that point, there are serious problems, such as discrimination from labor market opportunities, public safety issues, and access to quality housing…

Allard says that sometimes, people mistakenly assume that the poor in suburbs have come from elsewhere and are new arrivals to the neighborhood, a preconception that has made it harder for suburban regions to find the political support to tackle poverty issues.

His research shows the opposite, especially since the Great Recession, which he says hit the suburbs much harder than the rest of the country. The housing crisis hit the mortgage and real estate industry as well as the home improvement business, and the changes in poverty actually became more severe in the suburbs after the larger national recovery started. Grocery markets and retail shops were having a harder time staying afloat in hard-hit suburban regions. The impact inspired the book’s cover image: a strip mall filled with closed or vacated commercial space.

If the poor do become more visible in suburban communities – either because of their numbers or because of increased attention from academics, local officials, and nearby residents – it will be interesting to see how suburban communities and residents respond. Given the exclusionary nature of American suburbs, there could be several possible responses:

  1. Ignore this as long as possible. Suburbanites are not exactly known for their social interactions with a broad range of people so if those living in poverty are outside their immediate social circles, perhaps it can simply be ignored.
  2. Not provide many social services to the suburban poor. This might be with the goal of ignoring the nearby poverty or hoping that the residents go away. Or, communities might refuse to do much on the local government level and wait for non-profits and state agencies to respond.
  3. Move away from communities where there are visible numbers of suburban poor to wealthier suburbs. If this happens, the process of white flight continues as the wealthy just keep moving away from poorer residents.

It will be worth checking in a decade or so down the road to see how exactly suburban poverty has been addressed.

Majority of older Americans want to “age in place,” not move to the city

An article profiling some suburbanites who moved to the city as older adults admits that this isn’t the path desired by most Americans:

But you didn’t move back into the city, did you? Instead, you’re doing what the vast majority of American adults prefer to do: “aging in place.” According to a recent survey of adults 45-plus by AARP, 80 percent of respondents agreed that “what I’d really like to do is remain in my local community.”

But for those willing to make the exodus, the move into Chicago proper can be extremely rewarding…

Still, the Zimmermans’ move into town runs counter to overall trends. The 2015 data from the National Association of Realtors show that among “repeat buyers” (most likely to be boomers and Gen Xers), only 12 percent are buying in urban areas. An equal number are going to rural areas, 20 percent are going to small towns, but most — 53 percent — are buying in the suburbs.

And here’s a bit of a shocker: Although studies show that a third of retirees don’t expect to move at all, those who do move are not necessarily even downsizing. According to a recent survey by Age Wave, a firm that specializes in research on the aging population, only about half of retirees 50-plus who move after retiring choose a home that’s smaller; 19 percent move to a place of equivalent size, and 30 percent actually upsize.

There are always a good number of stories about urban revivals and people flocking to American big cities for the amenities and short commutes. However, the stories tend to obscure that the majority of Americans do not choose this path. When asked, many Americans say they want to live in small towns than anywhere else.

Particularly for older adults, the move to the city is probably only possible for those with significant means. Additionally, where many of those people want to move – is in nicer neighborhoods with cultural events, access to jobs, and newer construction – as opposed to living in many of neighborhoods of the city.

At the same time, aging in place in the suburbs presents unique challenges with its emphasis on single-family homes and driving. Homes can be difficult to maintain for decades and driving may not be possible at a certain point. Then, the spaciousness of the sprawling suburbs can be a significant hindrance to providing social services.

Should tranpsortation also be covered by social services?

With the geographic spread of poverty to the suburbs, should transportation be considered a necessary social service?

“One thing that’s pretty incredible, if we start to think about it, is that transportation has been outside of what we define as a human service,” says Alexandra Murphy, a sociologist who studies poverty at the University of Michigan. “Even though it’s widely acknowledged that transportation creates opportunity and hardship.”

This week, however, saw the launch of one of the U.S.’s largest-ever subsidized bus-fare programs. King County, a Washington State county that includes Seattle, will now allow low-income residents to ride buses, trains, and ferries for $1.50, when standard fares can be more than $3. Other U.S. cities will watching closely to see if the program works, the New York Times reported…

“Transportation agencies don’t often have a poverty mission at their core like health and human services agencies do,” says Scott Allard, a public affairs researcher at the University of Washington. Providing lower-than-average fares “has typically not been in their mandate,” says Howard Chernick, an economist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute of Research on Poverty.

Human services departments may be reluctant to take on transportation because of liability issues that don’t exist with food and housing, Murphy, the University of Michigan sociologist, thinks. What if someone driving a subsidized car gets into an accident? “It’s the perception that it’s a quagmire that people don’t even want to walk into,” she says.


Owning a car is not cheap and with more jobs and poorer residents in the suburbs, cheap and reliable transportation becomes a bigger necessity. Public transportation options in the suburbs are often limited (hours, perhaps only bus or train) or do not go all the places with jobs. I don’t see why it would be difficult to provide some sort of credit or voucher for public transportation based on income limits. While this might limit employees to living in existing public transportation corridors, it would be a start.

This reminds me of a program I remember hearing about a few years where the state of Wisconsin was piloting a program that provided cheap yet reliable cars for lower-income residents.

Persistent homelessness in the Chicago suburbs shouldn’t be a surprise

Homelessness is an ongoing concern for Chicago suburbs:

Advocates say her story reflects an ongoing dilemma for those working to end homelessness. The problem often is dismissed as an urban one, but thousands of homeless people seek emergency overnight shelter across Chicago’s suburbs each year. In DuPage County, nearly three-quarters of the homeless are from the county, officials said.

Although the number of people served by homeless support agency DuPage Pads has remained steady at about 1,400 people for the past three years, officials counted an additional 29 people who refused shelter this year in favor of sleeping in parks, building entryways and other public areas, said Carol Simler, executive director for the agency.

Many of these homeless people are affected by mental illness, substance abuse or debilitating health conditions. Yet stringent suburban law enforcement — which keeps homeless people from congregating or loitering — coupled with an increase in foreclosed buildings in some areas make the fringe group difficult to reach, advocates say…

In Lake County, 2,000 people receive assistance or shelter from PADS Lake County each year. Officials estimate that an additional 200 choose to sleep outdoors — a group that can be elusive, said Joel Williams, executive director of PADS Lake County.

A few thoughts:

1. Homelessness in the suburbs might be even more pernicious for those without a home because it is harder to access local services or they are less present. As this article notes, there are several organizations in the Chicago suburbs tackling the issue and the PADS organizations in DuPage and Lake County take advantage of the Metra lines or busing, respectively.

2. It shouldn’t be surprising in 2013 to see “urban” issues in suburban areas. For example, the number of people in poverty in the suburbs now exceeds the number in poverty in big cities. Or, see the recent set of articles in the Chicago area about an uptick in heroin usage in the suburbs. Yet, it is still common to see articles like this or reactions from suburbanites that say things like, “isn’t it strange to see urban issues in the suburbs?” It could be that there are still suburbanites who aren’t expecting these issues or who intentionally moved to the suburbs to get away from such concerns. Yet, I also wonder if this isn’t really code for something: this is really more concern in wealthier suburbs who would like to keep these sorts of troubles far from their borders.

“Why Low-Income Housing Applicants Have to Waste Hours of Time Waiting in Gigantic Lines”

The 312 looks at why applicants for social services have to wait in long lines:

Can you imagine people waiting in a line that stretched around the block for any other government service? The DMV? The City Clerk? The Secretary of State?

But inconvenience is pretty standard when it comes to services for the poor, says Dan Lesser, of the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

“There’s a world of different between how the average person is treated at the DMV and how someone whose applying for assistance is treated at the local public aid office,” said Lesser.

“We heard that a lot when the economy went bad and a lot of people applied for food stamps for the first time,” he said. “They were definitely not used to get the kind of treatment that they got when they went to those local offices.”

It makes you wonder: Is there simply a belief that poor people have nowhere better to be? Why do the providers of essential services treat them as if their time is worthless?

Most of the problem lies with the abysmal funding levels for human services, says Lesser. But the majority of people who are on some kind of public assistance are working, he says, and the layers of red tape hurts them financially.

It sounds like adding insult to injury. This reminds me of a faculty member I know who has students go through the process of applying for public aid without giving them any information. The students tend to report that the process is a lot harder than you might think.

But, there could be another issue at work as well. Take the example in this blog post about a line for applying for low-income housing. There is an issue long before getting into line: the Chicago area, not just the city, is lacking in affordable housing. I’ve seen numbers suggesting the region is at least 50,000 affordable units short. Hence, the wait lists for public or affordable housing are really long. Interest in joining a waiting list or getting a shot a new opportunity is high.

Living in near poverty in the Washington D.C. suburbs

The number of poor people in the suburbs is growing and the Washington Post takes a look at those just above the poverty line in the suburbs of Washington D.C.:

These are the folks hovering above the poverty line, just a few digits away from the cliff that drops them into the world of people we fret over and create government programs for.Poverty, in most of the cases we hear it discussed, means a household income of less than $23,000 for a family of four. But what if you make $25,000, $30,000 or even $40,000? Is that easy street?…

From 2010 to 2011, poverty rates jumped in Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties, the land of McMansions, gated communities and shiny, big-box stores.

The suburbs were built to accommodate prosperity and consumption, a life of big lawns, big cars and big dreams. It is a precipice so high that the drop — a missed mortgage that turns into a foreclosure, a repossessed car that results in a lost job — is dizzying.

Step into any thrift store and the pain is on display, right along with the used cake platters, tea sets and cocktail dresses nobody needs anymore.

A few thoughts on the full story:

1. The columnist uses an interesting term for this group living just above the poverty line: the pre-poor. Does this imply that they are inevitably on a path to poverty or could they also move upward out of this group with a new job or opportunity?

2. The story focuses primarily on thrift stores but assumedly there are other places where the pre-poor shop and gather? In other words, this sounds like an easy entree into this segment of the American populace but doesn’t give us much of the complex story of their lives.

3. Another angle on this would be to look at the social services available to those just above poverty. Are there local charities, religious organizations, and civic groups trying to help? Are these suburbs, places built for prosperity and yet seeing growing need for social services, able to help?

Earn sociology credit by volunteering at Illinois’ new 2-1-1 info phone number

A new information phone number, 2-1-1, is close to being available to northeastern Illinois residents and sociology students at a few Illinois colleges can earn credit for volunteering at the call centers:

The number is a free, nonemergency option for information on health and human service agencies, spearheaded by United Way. More than 30 states have coverage for 100 percent of their residents, as does Puerto Rico. Illinois and Arkansas are the only two states with less than 20 percent of residents able to dial 211, according to United Way Worldwide 2011 statistics…

Now though, David Barber, executive director of the United Way of Greater McHenry County, is working with six other local United Ways to create a similar collaborative across McHenry, Kane, Kendall and Lake counties. Barber is on the board of 211 Illinois and was the chairman for the committee that issued a request for information from potential 211 operators for downstate counties…

Local college students studying sociology or psychology could get real-world experience helping people in need by volunteering at the call centers for class credit — as Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan students already do. A single call center could serve the entire region or multiple call centers could be formed.

And data about the content of calls will be available to constantly improve service.

This is interesting that this service is making its way to more suburban areas. Chicago has had a popular 3-1-1 number for years. The Chicago number had 4.2 million calls last year. According to the FAQs, here are the “most requested city services in Chicago“:

  • Street Lights – All/Out
  • Graffiti Removal
  • Garbage Cart Black
  • Rodent Baiting/Rat Complaint
  • Shelter Request
  • Building Violation
  • Pot Hole in Street
  • Abandoned Vehicle Complaint

I would be interested to know what these sociology (and psychology) students encounter when answering these phone calls. How much could their sociological training come into play?

I am intrigued by the last idea quoted above: the phone number operates as a sort of voluntary needs-based assessment. On one hand, the phone number is not a representative sample of needs in an area and people may not call the phone number about certain issues. On the other hand, if a subject continually comes up, it could be some indication that services in that area are needed.

Discussing the rise in suburban poverty in the Pittsburgh region

After a recent report discussed the rise of poverty in the suburbs and the inability of many suburban governments to provide services for those in poverty, here is how this plays out in the Pittsburgh region:

In Western Pennsylvania, the increase of suburban poverty is not because poor people are moving into those areas. Instead, people living in the suburbs are becoming poor. Chris Briem, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social & Urban Research, said local areas with high rates of poverty are “not necessarily places that are poor because of out-migration from the city.”…

Alexandra Murphy has been living in Penn Hills for the past three years studying the suburban poor for a doctorate in sociology from Princeton University. She said the working class, which was “on the brink of making ends meet” before the recession, found itself what she termed “poor in place,” and needing access to food banks and help with bills just like the traditional poor in the cities.

Murphy said the difference between urban poverty and suburban poverty is that the latter “doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to meet the needs.”…

Mike Irwin, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Duquesne University, said that kind of a shift can result in “social disorganization” in some communities, which can lead to increased crime. The deterioration some communities have experienced over the past few decades could soon occur in more places, he said.

More and more suburban communities will encounter these issues. Considering the budget shortfalls faced by many municipalities and other units of local governments (school districts, park districts, etc.), how can they find money for social services?

If anything, this does provide an opportunity for religious congregations and organizations to step up and not only meet subsistence needs but also to think creatively about providing jobs and housing for the long term. Instead of just sending money to the inner city or overseas, wealthy suburban churches can now help out in their own backyards and help boost local economies.

Suburbs not prepared to provide for growing poor population

With more suburban residents seeking assistance, many suburban communities aren’t prepared:

Suburban-based social service agencies have been swamped. A survey of non-profit social service providers in suburban communities in the Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, conducted in 2009 and 2010 by researchers at Brookings, found that roughly nine in ten were seeing increased numbers of people seeking help compared to the previous year. Many had suffered cuts in financial support, prompting them to lay off staff and place needy people on wait-lists.

“In many communities, there just aren’t the organizations needed to provide job training, counseling or emergency assistance,” said Scott Allard, a political scientist at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and the lead author of the survey. “Poverty is a recent phenomenon.”

One key piece of data from the survey underscores the corrosive effects of suburban poverty on the American identity: Nearly three-fourths of the suburban non-profits were seeing significant numbers of people turning up who had never previously sought help.

Several thoughts:

1. The problem is perhaps even worse than just growing numbers as more budgets of suburban communities have tightened. Where in municipal budgets is there money for this?

2. This reminds of a talk I heard from a homelessness researcher some years ago who suggested that a good number of the homeless who go to shelters are people who are temporarily homeless. On one hand, there is a persistent minority of the homeless who are always homeless but most are there because of temporary circumstances like a job loss, eviction, or medical costs. Will this be the case for the suburban poor – are these long-term poor residents or would these numbers shrink considerably if the economy picked up?

3. How dispersed is the poor population in the suburbs? I have not seen any maps or measures where exactly the suburban poor live. Knowing American residential patterns, we might suspect that the suburban poor tend to cluster in less wealthy/more affordable suburbs while wealthier suburbs have barely seen an increase in the number of poor residents, particularly since wealthier suburbs would not want such residents.