Confronting Suburban Poverty


stop sign at dusk

Childhood Poverty is growing in suburban areas. Unfortunately, resources necessary to provide for these children are lagging. Learn about the challenges a child faces, when she lives both in the suburbs and in poverty.  By guest author, Natalie Holmes.

If you’re like most people, ‘poverty’ probably brings to mind images of blighted, inner-city neighborhoods and remote, rural communities. Historically, that’s where most American poverty has existed. The term “suberbs” probably makes you think of a neighborhood where people live comfortably without many financial woes. You might even think of a situation similar to that of the characters in Malcolm in the Middle. While there are elements of truth to both of these perceptions, reality is a little more complicated.

Since the early 2000s, suburbs have been home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the United States. Suburban communities don’t see the same levels of concentrated disadvantage as large cities, but even that is changing: since the Great Recession ended, concentrated poverty has grown nearly twice as fast in suburbs as in cities.

Suburban home

In 2014, there were 5.7 million poor children, pre-K through 8th grade, living in the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. Over 2.5 million of these students lived in large, central cities that anchor these regions—and nearly 3.2 million lived in outlying suburban communities. Three in five Title I-eligible schools in these large metro areas are located in the suburbs. And student homelessness in the suburbs is also on the rise.

Being poor in the suburbs can bring additional challenges. Compared to large cities that have dealt with poverty for a long time, small, suburban communities may lack the experience and funds to provide needed social services. Transit access is patchier in the suburbs, which can make it difficult for low-income workers and families to access jobs, social services, and even basic amenities like grocery stores.

We know that nonprofit organizations form a vital part of the social safety net for poor children and families throughout the U.S. Among the challenges that low-income individuals are more likely to face in the suburbs is a thinner, less-well-resourced nonprofit safety net.

Adding up all of the revenue from all social service nonprofits, suburban organizations have just over half as much as their urban counterparts to spend for each low-income individual served. They may lack urban organizations’ decades of experience operating at scale—and, importantly, their experience weaving together diverse funding streams. Philanthropic resources are also more limited in the suburbs.

Although it challenges our preconceptions and may be less visible than urban poverty, all signs indicate that suburban poverty is here to stay. Meanwhile, the public and nonprofit safety net continues to lag behind growing need in the suburbs. Achieving scale and collaborating with other groups on the ground can help organizations successfully adapt to the new geography of poverty—and, in doing so, better support the millions of low-income schoolchildren and their families who live in suburban communities.

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