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How will the Suburbs Cope with Poverty?

The terms Central city, Inner city and urban have long been synonymous with the poorer, disadvantaged minority sections of metropolitan areas. Conversely, the suburbs have been associated with whites, affluence and job growth. For a long time, however, this dichotomy has failed to capture the gradual blurring of distinctive patterns that demarcate city from suburb. A recent Brookings report by Kenya Covington, Michael Stoll and yours truly underscores this point. The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, the single largest affordable housing program in the country is almost as prevalent in the suburbs as in central cities.
Lance Freeman | October 13, 2011, 12pm PDT
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The terms Central city, Inner city and urban have long been synonymous with the poorer, disadvantaged minority sections of metropolitan areas. Conversely, the suburbs have been associated with whites, affluence and job growth. For a long time, however, this dichotomy has failed to capture the gradual blurring of distinctive patterns that demarcate city from suburb. A recent Brookings report by Kenya Covington, Michael Stoll and yours truly underscores this point. The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, the single largest affordable housing program in the country is almost as prevalent in the suburbs as in central cities. Moreover, over the 2000-2008 period the rate at which black and Latino voucher recipients suburbanized outpaced that of white voucher recipients. Gone are the days when poverty of the type associated with affordable housing was an urban problem. This report comes on the heels of another study by Elizabeth Kneebone and Emily Garr that showed that the suburban poverty population now exceeded that found in central cities (it should be noted that size of the total suburban population is much larger, and hence the suburban poverty rate is still lower than the central city poverty rate).

These trends have enormous implications for planning. Particularly when we consider the resources needed to address urban poverty. At least one of the roots of planning grew from progressives' concerns with the slums of the early industrial city. Progressives' concerns were motivated by both self-interest and noblesse oblige. But the fact that the progressives often lived in the same cities as the poor meant they could not always easily ignore the poor and that the interests of the two groups' often overlapped because they were residents of the same cities. Although poor city dwellers were in many ways better off than their rural counterparts, living in the city made them more visible and sparked some progressive reforms.

The suburbanization of poverty, however, runs the risk of isolating the poor from the infrastructure that can help ameliorate some of the challenges of poverty. Anchor institutions such as hospital and universities, and major corporate headquarters are still more likely to be found in central cities. More importantly, while suburbs as a whole are becoming more diverse individual suburban jurisdictions, which are often relatively small, can still be relatively homogenous.

Will the increasing suburbanization of poverty serve to further isolate the poor or will it serve as springboard to escape poverty? Good planning certainly has a role to play here.

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