Poverty has migrated to the suburbs.
It's no longer what policymakers once thought of as primarily an urban and rural problem. In the 2000s, in the top 100 metropolitan areas, the number of suburban residents living below the poverty line surpassed those in adjoining major cities. By 2010, 15.3 million suburbanites were extremely poor vs. 12.8 million in the core cities.
It's an eye-opening statistic contained in a new book, "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America," by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.
The two policy analysts, who use East Contra Costa as a leading example, do not mean to imply that poverty has merely moved from major cities or rural areas to suburbs. During the last decade, poverty nationwide rose in all areas.
Indeed, a greater portion of major city residents live in poverty than residents of the adjoining suburbs. But, more people live in those suburbs, which helps explain why, in absolute numbers, there are more suburban poor.
In a certain sense, none of this should be surprising. After all, with the rapid growth of the suburbs since World War II, it was to be expected that poverty would eventually follow.
Interestingly, Berube says Bay Area suburban poverty outpaces the nation:
First, Bay Area poor are more heavily concentrated in the suburbs. In the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, about one-third of the poor reside in the suburbs. But in the U.S. Census Bureau statistical region of five Bay Area counties -- San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, Contra Costa and San Mateo -- and in the statistical area for Santa Clara and San Benito counties, about 42 percent of the poor live in the suburbs.
Second, in much of the Bay Area, suburban poverty is growing faster. Nationally, poverty rates increased similarly in major cities and suburbs in the 2000s. But in the Bay Area five-county statistical region, the number of suburban poor increased 56 percent in the 2000s, but 18 percent in the core cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Fremont. In the South Bay, there was little difference between the city and suburban growth rates.
For their research, Kneebone and Berube traveled the country looking at suburban poverty in different metropolitan regions. Berube says what they found in East Contra Costa was unique.
In most cases, Berube explains, poverty in older suburbs on city perimeters looked a lot like that in the urban cores. But East Contra Costa poverty is often found in relatively new housing far from the urban core.
"For me it was what was newest about suburban poverty in America and what might be the most challenging," he says.
He notes, for example, that minimal public transit and housing great distances from major job centers present particularly difficult problems. Moreover, the suburban poor are spread out more than urban poor, making it harder to locate services to help them.
Our public policy paradigm for addressing poverty, with its roots in President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 War on Poverty, was aimed at inner-city and rural poverty. Many of the programs that were developed for urban environments do not translate well to the suburbs.
The poverty migration suggests that we need to start rethinking how we help the poor.
But how? Kneebone and Berube do an excellent job statistically describing the problem. The solutions are where their work turns wonkish. That's an unavoidable result of the complexity of the state and federal social safety nets and the political reality that change will come only incrementally.
The challenges are great. For starters, whereas urban poverty programs often specialize in one aspect of assistance because other services are nearby, suburban poverty programs cannot afford that luxury. Efficiency requires multipurpose centers.
Also, philanthropic money still tends to flow much more freely to urban poverty programs because many of the major donors have yet to recognize the demographic shift that has transpired.
Kneebone and Berube's work shows that the models of the past must be revamped to fit the new geography. It won't be easy.