Five decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, the nation’s poor are more likely to be found in suburbs like this one than in cities or rural areas, and poverty in suburbs is rising faster than in any other setting in the country. By 2011, there were three million more people living in poverty in suburbs than in inner cities, according to a study released last year by the Brookings Institution. As a result, suburbs are grappling with problems that once seemed alien, issues compounded by a shortage of institutions helping the poor and distances that make it difficult for people to get to jobs and social services even if they can find them.
In no place is that more true than California, synonymous with the suburban good life and long a magnet for restless newcomers with big dreams. When taking into account the cost of living, including housing, child care and medical expenses, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, according to a measure introduced by the Census Bureau in 2011 that considers both government benefits and living costs in different parts of the country. By that measure, roughly nine million people — nearly a quarter of the state’s residents — live in poverty.
The New York Times looks at suburban poverty in California, mentioning the lack of social services in the suburbs, but doesn’t dig too deep. I worked on a research project several years ago that asked me to try to conceptualize the material difference in suburban versus urban poverty. Many fine-grained indicators of financial insecurity are hard to map at a sub-metro level: health insurance, use of food stamps, etc. Although there has been a boom in literature about suburban poverty (and a hearty anecdotal understanding across the country that poverty is not an inner city issue), I haven’t seen much in the way of robust research on what this means for policy.
This article is an example of a description that surprises less than it seems to think it will, and raises fewer questions than it should: Why don’t those suburbs, in some cases huge municipalities, offer services? Is the reliance on private charity really much higher in the suburbs, or are urban residents also drawing heavily on them?
Researchers and journalists, take heed!