By Jonathan Bradley
Perhaps it's too premature to read inner city slums their last rites, but the geography of urban poverty in America has been changing over the past few decades, and that change has become particularly prevalent over the past ten years. Where the story of urban American was once "white flight" — middle class caucasians fleeing the inner city for the suburbs and leaving behind poor immigrant and black populations with an insufficient economic base to maintain employment and services — the areas with the most rapidly growing poverty rates are now in the suburbs.
Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube explain:
The 2010 data confirm that poor populations continued their decade-long shift toward suburban areas. From 2000 to 2010, the number of poor people in major-metro suburbs grew 53 per cent (5.3 million people), compared to 23 per cent in cities (2.4 million people). By 2010, suburbs were home to one-third of the nation’s poor population — outranking cities (27.5 per cent), small metro areas (20.5 percent), and non-metropolitan communities (18.7 percent).
In addition to regional economic influences, a combination of factors contributed to the swelling of the suburban poor ranks over the decade, including overall population growth, immigration, job decentralization (particularly among low- and middle-skill industries like construction, retail, and manufacturing), aging of housing, and shifts in the location of affordable and subsidized housing. Between 2000 and 2010, 85 of the nation’s largest metro areas experienced a significant increase in their suburban poor population, and in 16 metro areas, including Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, the suburban poor population more than doubled during that time. The recession merely served to accelerate the trend, as suburbs added 3.4 million poor from 2007 to 2010—1.4 million more poor individuals than cities.
This is certainly a trend I saw in the American city I know best, Seattle. My old neighbourhood of Belltown is just north of downtown Seattle, and though it was certainly not unusual to see drug dealers and homeless people on the streets, particularly after dark, it was a neighbourhood that had well and truly gentrified by the time I moved in. Locals spoke nostalgically of the old Belltown, a rough-and-ready grungy place that had been replaced by nightclubs and restaurants and could only be found in a select few diners and bars that had resisted the change. The neighbourhood is now populated by young employees of firms like Microsoft and Amazon, and Seattle's poorer citizens have moved out to distant suburban districts, or even farther afield, to Tacoma or Everett. The difficulty is clear: if it's tough being poor in the city, it's even tougher being poor in suburbs which have been designed for people who can, for instance, afford to own a car and don't need to rely on public transport.
Where this is something new for the United States, it's a situation familiar to those of us in Australia, and to Europeans as well. In Sydney, for instance, the inner city has long been reserved for those who can afford its high housing costs, while the less wealthy have been forced out to the more distant suburbs sprawling to the city's west.
Last month, Frank Gruber asked a provocative question: Why did America destroy its cities?
What I was referring to was the catastrophe that befell America's great cities in the decades after World War II. How do we explain that Detroit lost two-thirds of its population, or that Philadelphia lost 40 per cent? That powerhouse cities like Pittsburgh and Akron and Cleveland hollowed out? That 10 per cent of the housing in New York City was destroyed by fire in the '60s and '70s?
While this catastrophe is typically identified with the Rust Belt, it also hit central cities in metropolitan areas that had overall growth in the "new economy," such as Los Angeles and San Francisco in the west, or New York or Boston in the east, or various cities in the south, where formerly viable working class districts lost jobs and working populations, and declined into rundown poverty.
He listed some reasonable explanations for the change, some cultural, some technological, some ideological, and some reflective of racial prejudice. Certainly, the post World War II suburban boom is a story with an unmistakeable racial edge: Many of the new, desirable, and affordable communities opening up around the edges of cities like New York and Chicago were governed by covenants preventing owners selling to African American buyers. The black population, with its higher rates of poverty, often remained in the inner cities not for economic reasons, but because it was shut out from buying homes in the suburbs. When poorer black folks move to the suburbs now, they're often making a journey white people in a similar economic situation made a couple generations previous.
The result might well be a revival of many American cities, as poverty and its attendant problems are shifted away from downtown. But while that will have benefits for a population of young urbanites who enjoy the vitality and convenience of city life, it doesn't actually solve any of the problems with American poverty. More of the poorest Americans are now hidden on the outskirts of the nation's cities instead of squeezed together downtown, but they're still there. Only now they will have to contend with the distinct lack of services and infrastructure associated with those distant locales. A city's regeneration doesn't always mean life is improving for its residents.
27 September 2011