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Our Suburbs Are Now Poorer Than Our Cities


The story of urban revival has become quite familiar in the last decade—cities are denser, more walkable, and neighborhoods once blighted have been re-branded and re-born. One person's gentrification is another's "creative placemaking" success story. Rents are skyrocketing in neighborhoods that twenty years ago would have made for very unlikely locations for farm-to-table restaurants and 'pour-over' coffee emporiums. We're seeing that play out from Pittsburgh's East Liberty and D.C.'s Petworth to San Francisco's Hunter's Point and L.A.'s Echo Park.

A new study from the Brookings Institution though points out a fascinating flip side to this dynamic: more people subsisting at or below the federal poverty line now live in the suburbs than in urban communities. The authors outline a web of factors for this development—from the push-pull of gentrification and the affordable housing, to the vanishing of factory jobs and the housing bust, according to the LA Times:


"The myth of suburban prosperity has been a stubborn one," said Christopher Niedt, who as academic director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University is familiar with the trend Brookings described. Even as suburban poverty emerged, "many poorer communities were so segregated from the wealthy in suburbs that many people were able to ignore it."

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Where the crumbling urban core once compacted poverty-often effectively keeping things out of sight and out of mind for those who'd fled to the suburbs, the balance of prosperity has inverted, and social and public services haven't kept up:

As poverty shifted to the suburbs across the country, however, help has not always kept pace, Brookings researchers said. Many suburbs are thin on safety nets. Public transportation is often scant, making it harder for the suburban poor to reach jobs and assistance.

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The authors also note that Los Angeles was the bellwether—this shift began occurring decades ago in Southern California, where more than half of the poor have long lived in suburbia. "Everything is nicely maintained. Things look good on the surface," Margie Wakeham, executive director of Families Forward, told the LA Times. "But the need has just skyrocketed."

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