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Poverty, Once Relegated to Cities, Now Plaguing Suburban U.S.

Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh, PA

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In post-World War II America, the sprawling suburbs made possible by full employment, good wages, and an abundance of automobiles were a symbol of prosperity. Large supermarkets, shopping malls and public parks were a sign of American success that few foresaw fading. But now, as the economy struggles to return to pre-recession standards, the suburbs are becoming poorer.

In their recent report on suburban poverty , the Brookings Institution researched the growing trend of traditionally middle-income areas shifting to lower-income brackets. They credit this, in part, to failed policies. The study looks into 100 metro areas and finds similar results.

Penn Hills, PA, was a town devastated in the 1980s. Its demographics changed in the following decades and, when the recent recession hit, new residents were unable to realize once lucid dreams of upward mobility. For Penn Hills, the decline began with Westinghouse abandoning the City of Pittsburgh. The region is now shedding population due to a lack of employment:

With the deterioration of the Pittsburgh region’s industrial base since the 1980s, Penn Hills has shed population and jobs. At the same time, many lower-income African American families have moved to the suburb from poor inner-city Pittsburgh neighborhoods and other declining steel towns hit by even greater economic and social challenges. In 2010, the city’s population had fallen to 42,000, from 58,000 in 1980. And by 2010, one in three residents of Penn Hills was African American, up from one in nine in 1980.

The growing low-income population in Penn Hills faces significant challenges around access to transportation. Some parts of the community are served by just one bus line that comes only a few times in the morning (into the city) and a few times in the late afternoon to early evening (back out of the city). Budget cuts at the Allegheny County Port Authority have left many of Penn Hills’ neighborhoods and residents with limited public transit options, including none on the weekends. Given that one in ten households lacks access to a vehicle, these cuts have left many residents struggling to gain and maintain employment, particularly those working late shifts in the city or trying to get to jobs in neighboring suburbs. Residents must increasingly depend on family members, friends, or neighbors with cars to help them shop for groceries (the closest store is more than two miles from some poor neighborhoods) or get to a doctor’s appointment, stressing already fragile relationships. A trip to get Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits can turn into an all-day affair.

For the city of Pittsburgh, a recent upswing in the economy is being viewed cautiously as a slight spike on a line graph that has been descending for decades. While some progress is being made, it is unrealistic to believe that the prosperity enjoyed across demographics when the city served as a major industrial sector (with high union density) will return. As the charts linked to the study show, problems once limited to cities are now arising in the suburbs:

The poverty rate in Penn Hills rose from almost 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2008–10. The local unemployment rate, which was historically lower than the city of Pittsburgh’s, now equals and periodically exceeds it. For example, in December 2012, Penn Hills’ unemployment rate stood at 8.2 percent, compared to 7.1 percent in Pittsburgh.

Suburban decline is not reserved for the Rustbelt. In the Seattle suburb of Tukwila, the same scenarios are playing out. As the region’s industrial sector diminished, the demographics changed and residents, much like those of Penn Hills, began to deal with new problems:

Over the last two decades, Tukwila has transformed demographically and economically. Waves of refugees have resettled in the city, including Bosnians and Serbs in the 1990s, Somalis and Sudanese in the 2000s, and Bhutanese and Nepalese after that. Throughout, Latinos have migrated to the area from Mexico and other parts of Central America for work, some on a seasonal basis from farms in eastern Washington. And in recent years, local observers note that in-migration from popularizing neighborhoods in South Seattle has accelerated, particularly among black families.

Tukwila has been a migration magnet for a number of reasons. Its aging and diverse housing stock and plentiful rental options make housing more affordable than in Seattle or the region as a whole. Proximity to employment hubs like the Port of Seattle and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport remains an asset in a region where the bulk of jobs continue to move away from downtown. At the same time that these attributes have drawn low-income families and individuals to the city, long-term residents have also found themselves struggling to get by. Half of Tukwila’s workers hold jobs in retail, hospitality and food service, warehousing, construction, and other services — industries that not only consist of lower-paying jobs but also were hit hard in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Changes in Tukwila have brought with them a special set of challenges, particularly in the schools. Targets under No Child Left Behind have proven difficult to achieve with students new to the United States who possess almost no English language skills, not to mention limited literacy in their home countries’ languages. High levels of family mobility in a tight housing market disrupt learning for students and their classrooms. Parents from outside the U.S. often have no history of engaging directly with their children’s teachers to ensure their needs are being met. And these special problems layer on top of the larger economic challenges facing local families — including inadequate access to jobs, low income, poor nutrition and health — that complicate the educational picture for children.
Education, transportation, and access to jobs must all be addressed in order to change the course of the sinking suburban ship. Much of this begins by accepting and acknowledging that the cul-du-sacs and shopping malls which once represented prosperity are now filled with kids who have specific needs that we do not know how to meet.

Read more from this report and other works by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube on


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