Housing Complex

The Suburban Poverty Shift

poverty

As protests over the shooting of an unarmed teenager continue to roil Ferguson, Mo., the Brookings Institution takes a look at the socioeconomic context of the town's social unrest. The unemployment rate in the St. Louis suburb increased from less than 5 percent in 2000 to more than 13 percent in 2010-2012. For residents who do have a job, real earnings declined by a third. The poverty rate doubled.

It's a trend, Brooking points out, that's common to suburbs around the country. In nearly every major metropolitan area, suburban poverty has increased over the past decade; it's also become more concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods.

The D.C. area's no exception. Brookings recently published metro area-level data on urban and suburban poverty in an interactive feature that highlights the divergence between the District and its suburbs.

In the "primary cities" of the D.C. region—namely D.C., Arlington, and Alexandria—the population in poverty declined by 3.5 percent between 2000 and 2008-2012. Meanwhile, the percentage of poor people living in both census tracts with 20 percent or higher poverty and census tracts with 40 percent or higher poverty declined. In other words, poverty became less prevalent and less concentrated.

Compare that to the rest of the metro area. There, poverty shot up by more than 42 percent. And the percentage of poor people living in tracts with at least 20 percent poverty increased from 4.2 percent to 14 percent. (The share living in tracts with at least 40 percent poverty remained at zero.)

To an extent, of course, this inversion is simply a correction for the patterns of the second half of the past century, which saw a flight of wealth to the suburbs and an increasing concentration of poverty in the District. Now, with the city growing increasingly desirable and expensive, some low-income residents are being pushed out to the suburbs of Prince George's County and elsewhere. From a cynical perspective, this has benefits for the District: Poor people, like families with children, are a drag on city resources. But for the sake of the city's social fabric, as well as its ability to retain the workers who keep the city running, it's not a trend that's sustainable in the long term. Nor, of course, is it a welcome one for the suburbs that now find themselves subject to many of the challenges once reserved for the inner city.

Chart made with Chartbuilder using data from Brookings

...