Poverty, Still Coming To A Suburb Near You

When you think about poverty, you might picture dilapidated urban neighborhoods or rural areas. But a new book says the rate of poverty in the suburbs has grown by 64 percent in the past decade, and doesn't show signs of stopping. Host Michel Martin speaks with Elizabeth Kneebone, author of Confronting Suburban Poverty.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now, we'd like to talk about the changing face of poverty in this country. In a few minutes, we'll hear about poverty among Asian-Americans. It turns out that the rate of poverty in that admittedly large and diverse population might be surprising when you're used to hearing a very different story.

It also may surprise you to know that more poor Americans now live in suburbs than cities, so we'll focus on that first. You might have heard about Montgomery County, Maryland. It's just outside Washington, D.C. It's one of the wealthiest counties in the country, but Wendy Enderson, who works for a nonprofit that works with low-income people in Montgomery County, says she's seeing much more demand for the kinds of services her group provides.

WENDY ENDERSON: They're not just coming in needing help with food assistance or shelter. We're actually seeing a rise in domestic violence issues, child abuse, neglect. Immigration is a big thing right now. Medical health insurance is a big thing.

MARTIN: A new book out today titled "Confronting Suburban Poverty" describes this phenomenon. Elizabeth Kneebone is the lead author and she's with us now from our Washington, D.C. studios.

Elizabeth, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.

ELIZABETH KNEEBONE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So when did poverty in the suburbs - when and how, I guess, is my question, did poverty in the suburbs become so noticeable?

KNEEBONE: Well, actually, it's been decades during which the poor population in suburbs has grown faster than in cities, since the 1980s, really, but...

MARTIN: And this is well before the current economic crisis, recession, whatever we want to call it?

KNEEBONE: That's right.

MARTIN: Well before that.

KNEEBONE: That's right. Decades worth of this trend sort of gradually unfolding over time, but what's really striking about the 2000s is the magnitude of the increase and the pace at which we saw this growth picking up. So, between 2000 and 2011, the number of poor in suburbs grew by 64 percent and that's more than twice the rate of growth that we saw in cities, faster than rural areas or other communities across the country.

MARTIN: And why is that? I think what you just said there is particularly striking. Faster than both rural areas and the cities and I think that people might find this surprising because they're used to hearing certain storylines like, for example, Detroit, like the collapse of the auto industry or the withdrawal of certain kinds of jobs from city areas, but I think most people would have assumed that those jobs, if they went anywhere, went to the suburbs. So why the suburbs?

KNEEBONE: Well, and that's the thing that I think presents a certain challenge about - how do we grapple with suburban poverty as this has happened so rapidly? And our perceptions are still a bit outdated. They've lagged behind the pace of growth that we've seen these trends unfolding. And if you think about - why is poverty growing in suburbs? It's either more low income families and residents moving to suburban communities or longer-term residents slipping down the economic ladder.

And, generally, it's a combination of both of those factors. And, you know, the suburbs are also where jobs are moving. For years, we've seen jobs suburbanize in regions across the country, so move away from city centers and further out into metro regions and jobs that pay lower wages, like construction or retail, are among the most suburbanized, and so is manufacturing, which is an industry that's been hit really hard over the last decade.

MARTIN: So you're saying that there are more people who are low income, more poor people moving into the suburbs. What about people in the suburbs slipping into poverty who were not previously there? That's also happening?

KNEEBONE: That is also happening and that's where we can look to different economic factors that are the sort of downward pressure on families that may have lived in suburbs forever. And that can be two things. You look at the two downturns that we had in the last decade. The one at the beginning of the 2000s, which was shallower and shorter, but then we ended, you know, the 2000s with the worst recession since the Great Depression that sent poverty to record levels in this country in terms of the number of poor living in the U.S.

And those changes were felt particularly in suburban communities because some of the hardest hit industries in the Great Recession were these more suburbanized types of jobs, like construction, like services, like manufacturing.

MARTIN: Is there something that characterizes poverty in the suburbs that you would want to call to our attention? I mean, I think people understand the concept, you know, that rural poverty can be particularly grinding because there just aren't that many types of jobs to do.

But, in the suburbs, we think of the suburbs as having - I don't know - kind of diversified economies. For example, different kinds of jobs. You know, if you can't work at The Gap, then maybe you can work at Old Navy or something. You know what I mean? So is there something about - that characterizes poverty in the suburbs that you think is particularly important to note from perhaps a policy standpoint?

KNEEBONE: What is perhaps unique about poverty in the suburbs - you know, it's not easy to be poor anywhere. You know, people struggle with the day-to-day realities of trying to get by and making ends meet, but in suburban communities, particularly ones where this is a recent phenomenon and a particularly rapid phenomenon, they often don't have the same sorts of services and infrastructure in place to address the challenges that come along with a growing poor population.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example. Are you saying that, perhaps, a city might have a food bank or a city might have a sort of a mechanism for people dealing with an immediate crisis? Like, they might have some funds to kind of give people an emergency rental payment or something. And you're saying that's less likely to be the case in the suburbs?

KNEEBONE: That's right. You know, we see that the safety net, of particularly nonprofit sort of services that have been built up in cities over decades of dealing with these challenges are often less present in suburban communities. The safety net in suburbs is stretched much thinner. It's much patchier in terms of the kinds of services that might be available and, often, you know, suburban residents may not even know what services are there or accessible to them, especially if they're not visible or present in the community.

MARTIN: You also talked in the book, though, about efforts between cities that tend to have more experience with this and suburbs who have less experience with this trying to collaborate across kind of geographic boundaries. And, certainly, we see this in the Washington, D.C. area. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KNEEBONE: Sure. One example of this is, if you look at the Seattle region and the south suburbs in particular and the south side of Seattle that have been grappling with not even just a rapid rise in suburban poverty, but also a diversifying community. In the south suburbs, they have in-movers from the city itself, from refugee populations from abroad, immigration. They have, you know, movement from other parts of the region. So it's a really diversifying and changing place that is also struggling with rising need.

And one of the ways this has presented itself is the schools are often on the frontlines of these trends. So making sure that there are the right services in place to help these students adapt, to help them achieve and close the stark education gaps that exist in these communities today was a sort of call to action for a number of school districts. Seven school districts in the south side of Seattle and in the school system in the south part of Seattle itself working together to create what's called the Roadmap Project to look at a continuum, a cradle to career continuum of services, to help kids achieve and to help put them on a path that gives them an opportunity and a way to work their way out of poverty.

MARTIN: Can I ask you a sticky question? You know, based on your reporting of this situation, I can imagine a scenario where people move to these areas in order to get away from those kinds of conversations. They don't necessarily want to have an economically diverse environment - right - precisely because part of the motivation for people moving there was to say, I'd like to have a classroom environment where the kids are all like my kid, where we're all on the same page, where our values are the same, where I don't have to think about reduced-price lunch and all that other stuff. I mean, are you finding that to be part of the issue here?

KNEEBONE: You know, when we say suburbs, we tend to think of one kind of thing, like it's one place. You know, it's an affluent, middle-class sort of cookie-cutter "Leave It To Beaver" image. In reality, suburbs are a diverse and fragmented array of places and just like there's no one type of suburb, there's no one type of experience of suburban poverty or response to it.

So we absolutely have seen this issue where, A, it may be a lack of information to understand how your community is changed, that you do have free and reduced price lunch students in your school. And, in fact, suburban students on free and reduced price lunch - that's a population that's been growing faster than in the cities, as well.

So this is already in communities that may not realize that it's there, but you see a diversity in terms of awareness and political will to do something about it.

MARTIN: That was Elizabeth Kneebone. She is a fellow at The Brookings Institution. That's a research group in Washington, D.C., a think tank, if you will. She is the lead author of the book "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America," and she joined us in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Kneebone, thank you for speaking with us.

KNEEBONE: Thanks again for having me.

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