Urban War on Poverty

Urban War on Poverty:

Following Trends of the Suburbanization of Poverty

Note: I recently wrote this essay for my City Worlds class at the University of Washington. In researching and writing this essay, I found the study of the suburbanization of poverty very interesting and indefinitely a topic of growing concern in our own cities. Suburban poverty may seem distant or dead-on from your current economic condition, but either way, its effects will surely encounter your wallet and your heart. Written: 27 February, 2009

            Debatably since the 1850’s poverty has bore much discussion, research, and study. But even now, into the beginning of the twenty-first century, poverty still raises many questions breaching margins of confusion, misunderstanding, and in some cases, ignorance. What makes someone officially ‘poor’? Is ‘poorness’ measurable? Despite the efforts of the Kennedy Administration’s funds for anti-poverty programs and President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty address to the State of the Union in January 1964, poverty measurement was still measurably unclear. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Office of Economic Opportunity constituted the ‘poverty line’ as a measuring tool and definition for poverty as a lack of income weighed against the economy food plan. Based upon Mollie Orshansky’s two sets of poverty thresholds, the ‘poverty line’ was established with purpose in mind for statistical, planning and budgeting reasons (Iceland, 2003).

            Since then, poverty studies show great numbers of people living below the ‘poverty line.’ As city/urban development took off in the early 1900s, city populations swelled in response to factory and manufacturing jobs in the downtowns. It was in the city that racial and class segregation began to appear in a fight for jobs and equal economic opportunity. The World Wars and the Great Depression brought much hardship on the economy and industrialization of city life. And so, poverty rates rose as jobs and incomes decreased. City’s became the central district of the poor displaying the most evident and statistical poverty rates.

            But as we near the end of the Industrial Revolution and move towards a Post-industrial era, poverty, too, moves towards other areas outside the city. The invention and success of the automobile in the 1920’s, enabled city dwellers, for the first time, to afford to live away from the city and their factory jobs. Because of the automobile, city life spread and suburbs formed. Rich suburbanites found it easy and convenient to live in suburbia and commute to the city everyday for work. In the last 20 years however, the suburban landscape has changed drastically from rich white residents to an integrated working-middle-class of homeowners and renters. Following the flee of city dwellers to suburbia is poverty. Following poverty to the suburbs are all the implications of its fight.

            The flight of city residents to suburban areas continues to add to the increase of populations and income dynamics in the America. Recent negative market conditions have had the greatest impact on workers and their families who are at the bottom of the earning and skills distribution (Berube & Kneebone, 2006). A large number of the workers and families affected by such market declines no longer live in the city but live in the suburbs. The problem is that the growing poverty rate in suburbia places consequential demands that are not being met in the infrastructure of suburban development. The increasingly recent trends of suburban poverty continue to expose implications of class-segregation, public service availability and transportation, and political strongholds for suburban residents. The urban war on poverty may have just begun, but its struggles may leave greater scars on suburban life and economy than ever anticipated.

            A key element in the American dream following World War II was moving to the suburbs as a representation of upward mobility (Dierwechter, 2009). The wealthy (or those that could afford it) that moved to the suburbs proved to be idealistic Americans during the twentieth century industrial booms. Today’s suburban landscape has changed from the suburban commuter to the city to suburban commuters to other suburbs. Improvements in technology and communication have made job availability in suburbia an option for suburban residents. Because of these benefits, along with gated communities, man-made lakes and posh office centers, a growing number of minority groups have also moved to suburbia. “In a reversal of the class migration story, many…displaced [working class] residents have fled to the suburbs” enticed by its low-wage jobs and shopping malls (Press, 2007). Recent suburban angst resides in the unknown future of suburbia, its cleanliness, and suburban stakeholders who are willing to fight for stability.

            Although poverty is less concentrated in the suburbs and its effects may be less visible than they are in the city, they are, nonetheless, realistic of today’s suburban geography. Eyal Press (2007) said in his article “The New Suburban Poverty,” “Americans have tended to envision [suburbs] as pristine sanctuaries where people go to escape brushing shoulders with the poor.” But the reality now is that suburbs have become the new poverty locality, the “new ground zero for homelessness” (Dierwechter, 2009). Suburban landscape today is experiencing polarized incomes as great as the city. Rich folks of prestige elite class reside in lakeshore mansions in suburban areas while working-class impoverished families struggle to keep their suburban roof over their heads. What does this unique new geography of income polarization tell us about the trends of poverty in suburban America?

            Poverty’s move to the suburbs, or more accurately, expansion to the suburbs (Dreier, 2006) has produced statistical trends that can be traced to a number of demographic characteristics better explaining the possible causes for such widespread impoverishment. Demographic structural influence on the change in the concentration of poverty is a result of many different factors that play into the role of poverty formation. Studies done by Janice Madden (1996) suggest that an increase in the African-American population of a city/suburb subsequently increases the concentration of poverty growth. Meanwhile, female headed household increases showed insignificant changes in the concentration of poverty. Research on the effects of education on concentrations of poverty indicates that education distribution ultimately affects household residential location patterns. Unequally educated persons are more likely to selectively migrate from the city to the suburb. “In other words, as the poor become relatively less educated and the non-poor relatively more educated, there is a greater tendency for the non-poor to suburbanize” (Madden, 1996).

            Statistically, poverty expansion to the suburbs shows a growing concern for the urban trend. “About 13.8 million poor Americans reside in suburbia today which is nearly as many as the 14.6 million poor who live in central cities” (Dreier, 2006). Peter Dreier’s (2006) research shows “the suburban poor represent 38.5% of the nation’s poor, compared with 40.6% of the total who live in central cities.” Poverty rates in the suburbs have increased particularly for Hispanics almost 1% from 2006-2007 and up to 18% for children under the age of 18 (Dierwechter, 2009). Findings by Berube and Kneebone (2006) show that by 2005, the suburban poor outnumbered their city counterparts by at least 1 million in vast difference from 1999 in which cities and suburbs equally shared numbers of poor. 

            Trends of economic isolation for minorities also follow the suburbanization of poverty. Although suburban neighborhoods are less segregated than they were 40 years ago, racial segregation still very much so exists in suburbia. Suburbia began as an exile of rich whites from the city to its fringes placing ultimate differentiation between classes based upon income. As whites fled the city, minority groups moved into formerly white homes and neighborhoods. This trend continues to add to suburban populations but minorities are now much more able to own their own homes or rent. However, economic opportunity remains low in availability for minority groups. Power in the workplace or the office building is still associated with those of the white race rippling subliminal effects of segregation down through the economic pyramid. Equal opportunity is an ongoing battle that adds to poverty concentrations in the city and the suburb.

            The many implications that follow trends of suburbanized poverty are due to social segregation and infrastructure. The truth is that suburbs were not built for poverty or an impoverished population. Expansions of high-poverty neighborhoods into the suburbs would bring hardship because these suburb communities do not have available resources to deal with such issues associated with dense areas of a large number of poor people” (Cook & Marchant, 2006). The myth of the suburbs has been that adults can get better jobs and children can go to better schools than in the city. But few of the suburban poor live in such prosperous neighborhoods. Most live in communities plagued by the same problems of the city: hunger, crime, inadequate schools and jobs, homelessness, etc…(Dreier, 2006). The suburbs indeed share an array of disadvantages and implications for people living below the poverty line alike the city.

            Housing and homeownership have been a fought over subject for decades between races and classes. Suburbia gives a new name to this battle, ‘snob zoning.’  Wealthier suburbs use ‘snob zoning’ to prohibit the poor and increasingly, the middle class, by zoning out prospects of poor households (Dierwechter, 2009). These communities require minimum lot sizes for single-family households that are really only affordable for families with a high income. With their money, these rich suburbanites bring shopping malls with an upsurge of low paying service economy jobs. This turns the suburb into a polarized locality in which the poor are the ‘working poor.’ Also, a lack of subsidized housing in suburbia often leaves poor people paying over half of their income for housing leaving a small amount of money for other bills and expenditures and nearly no money for recreation or entertainment.

            A grave disadvantage of living in the suburbs is that getting anywhere requires a car or some other form of transportation.  There’s no public transportation system in most outlying suburban areas, which is why the people who show up at the food pantry at the Red Cross …often carpool to get there, cramming one person each from four or five families into a single vehicle to save gas” (Press, 2007). The poor have an extremely hard time getting to their jobs. Suburban public transportation of any kind is rarely if never free feeing poor residents a price that may not be affordable to spend everyday.

            The poor have an equally hard time getting to public service centers as well which are largely, under-numbered in the suburbs. Most poverty-stricken people do not have medical insurance and the number of Doctors’ offices and clinics that accept Medicaid patients is few in the suburbs (Dreier, 2006). In an article about the scarcity of hospitals in poor suburbs, Cinda Becker (2007) writes: “Suburban areas with low poverty rates seem to be awash with hospital resources but high poverty suburban communities… had the smallest proportion of hospital use and specialty-care capacity.” Hospitals are expanding to suburbia but show little interest in poor areas. In a survey taken from the 100 largest U.S. cities and suburbs with high community poverty levels, 27% of suburban hospitals closed from 1996-2002 (Becker, 2007). As a result, the poverty populations of the suburbs do not and cannot receive adequate medical care that is affordable in any way.  

            A subject of major concern is the implications of suburban poverty on children. We have already seen the increase in poverty rates for children under the age of 18 living in suburban communities. The climbing rate of children in poverty erodes the progress of the 1990s efforts to equip children with successful means for the future (Berube & Kneebone, 2006). Children are at a great disadvantage living in poverty for many reasons. The motivation, skills and education needed in the workplace are typically taught in schools and after-school programs/extracurricular activities. Children in poverty may have to attend to a different agenda (such as working a low-paying job) than their middle-class peers. However, it is also important to remember that most children are born in the suburbs already because their family has resided in the area for many years. Children and their families ordinarily do not move towards poverty into the suburbs but are still subject to its implications.

            Emerging political impacts of the suburbanization of poverty has political leaders scratching their heads and trying new platform strategies to win the votes of the suburb poor.  Until recently, suburbs were primarily Republican and big city votes were Democratic. Today, suburbanites are politically up for grabs “because they are now a mirror of the larger society” (Dreier, 2006). In the 2000 Presidential election, suburban votes were split equally between candidates Al Gore and George Bush. Suburban poverty offers new opportunity for the Democratic Party that has a reputation for mobilizing the poor (Dreier, 2006). The suburban poor may be receptive to future Democratic approaches to such situations. More than ever, concerns of suburbanized poverty have hit political agendas. The most recent Presidential election shows the response of voters electing Barack Obama as the first Democrat to take office in 45 years.  

            As an ending note, mindsets of the inner-city poor and suburban middle-class contradict the reality today. The shift in location of poor families will continue to move in, through and out of the city and into suburban neighborhoods. If trends continue, suburban poverty will only increase creating more and more problems for poor workers and families. “How lower-income families and communities fare in the latter half of the 2000s remains to be seen” (Berube & Kneebone, 2006). Infrastructure and public policy will play vital roles in the shaping of suburbia’s future either responding to or ignoring the needs of the poor. Understanding where poverty is most severe is key for policymakers to be able to accurately target antipoverty and economic development assistance (Cushing & Zheng, 2000).

            The future of suburbia continues to remain blurred by signs of poverty. Vague concepts of measurement, methods and strategies that combat the recent trends in suburbanized poverty persist to be attempted. Poverty may be a statistical concept considered outdated (Berube and Kneebone, 2006) but it has provided much needed background and foundation for years of work ahead. Answers and solutions seem distant but dream-able for the future. The urban war on poverty is one suburbia will surely fight.



Iceland, J., 2003. Poverty in America. Berkley, California: University of California Press.


Dierwechter, Y., 2009, Suburbanization of Poverty. City World’s class lecture, University of Washington, Tacoma.

Electronic Journals

Becker, C., 2007. Poorer Suburbs Lack Hospitals; Those With High Poverty Rates Have Seen Erosion. Modern Healthcare, [online]. Available at: http://find.galegroup.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/itx/retrieve.do?subjectParam=&sort=DateDescend&tabID=T003&sgCurrentPosition=&subjectAction=&prodId=EAIM&docId=A161282262&searchId=R3&bucketSubId=&userGroupName=wash_main&docLevel=&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&qrySerId=Locale(en,,):FQE=(ke,None,16)suburban+poverty$&sgHitCountType=&inPS=true&searchType=BasicSearchForm&currentPosition=1 [Accessed 27 February 2009].

Berube, A., & Kneebone, E., 2006. Two Steps back: City and Suburban Poverty Trends 1999-2005. Living Cities Census Series, [online]. Available at: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/reports/2006/12poverty_berube/20061205_citysuburban.pdf [Accessed 26 February 2009].

Cushing, B. & Zheng, B., 2000. Re-evaluating Differences in Poverty Among Central City, Suburban, and Nonmetropolitan Areas of the US. Applied Economics, [online]. Available at: http://find.galegroup.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/itx/retrieve.do?contentSet=IAC-Documents&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&qrySerId=Locale%28en%2C%2C%29%3AFQE%3D%28KE%2CNone%2C16%29Suburban+Poverty%24&sgHitCountType=None&inPS=true&sort=DateDescend&searchType=BasicSearchForm&tabID=T002&prodId=EAIM&searchId=R1&currentPosition=2&userGroupName=wash_main&docId=A62591127&docType=IAC [Accessed 26 February 2009].

Madden, J. (1996). Changes in the Distribution of Poverty Across and Within the US Metropolitan Areas,1979-1989. Urban Studies, [online]. Available at:http://find.galegroup.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/itx/tab.do?qrySerId=Locale%28en%2%2C%29%3AFQE%3D%28ke%2CNone%2C16%29suburban+poverty%24&inPS=true&sort=DateDescend&tabID=T002&prodId=EAIM&searchId=R3&userGroupName=wash_main&prevSubject=&searchType=BasicSearchForm [Accessed 27 February 2009]. 

Press, E., 2007. The New Suburban Poverty. The Nation, [online]. Available at:http://web.ebscohost.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/ehost/pdf?vid=4&hid=103&sid=951b22a3-4a78-4fd4-9400-8305de5c0763%40sessionmgr104 [Accessed 26 February 2009].


Cooke, T., & Marchant, S., (2006) “The Changing Intrametropolitan Location of High-poverty Neighborhoods in the US, 1990-2000.” Urban Studies. 43(11): 1971-1989.

Dreier, P., 2006. Poverty in the suburbs.” The Nation. September 20: pp. 6-7.

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