The Rise Of The Suburban Poor

City centers–or even cities at all–aren’t where you’ll find the country’s poor anymore. They’re increasingly being forced into the suburbs.

The Rise Of The Suburban Poor

In 2004, a documentary called The End of Suburbia predicted that the suburbs were potentially “destined to become the slums of tomorrow” thanks to the impending threat of peak oil. That didn’t happen–the threat of peak oil has now been replaced by out-of-control climate change–but suburbs are declining, just for a different reason.


According to a new report put out by the Brookings Institute, more poor inhabitants of the U.S. now live in suburbs than in cities and rural areas. Between 2002 and 2011, the population of the suburban poor rose 67%. That’s over twice the number seen in urban areas.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the rapid gentrification of American cities. Affluent residents generally no longer elect to live in the suburbs; they’d rather live near all the amenities of cities, which are increasingly catering to their needs. But that’s not all.

Urban gentrification has played a big part in the rise of the suburban poor, but the trend has been accelerated by other factors, including the loss of manufacturing jobs, the housing bust (which impacted many of those suburban manufacturing workers), and the growth of the suburbs in general, which has in turn led to an increase in low-paying service-industry jobs in the mire of suburban sprawl.

The study’s authors write:

Despite these trends, the public policy framework for addressing poverty in place in the United States remains largely urban-oriented and ill-equipped to address the geographic scale of today’s need. That need, of course, has not left urban areas but has grown well beyond their borders. Moreover, the problems of regionalizing poverty have been exacerbated by a weak economy and increasingly limited resources for nonprofits, philanthropies, and government at all levels.

None of this means that the urban poor should be ignored. As gentrification increases, they’ll need more help than ever. But as I’ve watched San Francisco set its sights on gentrifying one of the last remaining “troubled” neighborhoods in the city, I’ve often wondered: “What happens to everyone that gets kicked out?” The Brookings Institute has provided a clear–and troubling–answer.

Check out the Confronting Suburban Poverty in America website for community profiles, case studies, and an action toolkit.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.