Minorities move to the suburbs and so does poverty

For America’s minorities – African Americans, Latinos and others – statistics show that there’s been much more integration in the last 50 years. Once the refuge of white flight, but considered unreachable by many inner-city residents, suburbia is no longer an exclusively white domain.

“Segregation (of blacks and whites) has decreased steadily since 1970,” said Alan Berube, a deputy director at the Brookings Institute in a report for the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.

In fact, by 2010 a majority of residents in each of the nation’s three major minority groups – black, Asian and Latino – lived in the suburbs, said Berube, and now represent a combined 35 percent of the suburban population.

But that’s what statistics show. What TV and social media portray is rioting, racial tension, anger and outrage in places like Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis that was 99 percent white in 1970 and is now more than 50 percent black.

“Moving out provides no guarantee of moving up,” said Berube.

So are things better or worse for minorities now living in the ‘burbs? Or is it a combination of the two?

In a series of essays, Berube and his colleagues at the Furman Center argue that the suburbs are not idyllic for newcomers “of color.” For one thing, they don’t move far. Blacks and other migrants usually end up in the inner ring of the suburbs surrounding the city – not to the outer, more affluent neighborhoods – and they tend to live in “pockets,” often because of affordable housing or marginal areas where housing is least expensive.

They’re also likely to bring a lot of poverty with them. Their needs can overload suburban municipalities that aren’t prepared to provide expanded services, said Scott Allard, a professor at the University of Washington. So moving doesn’t end the problem; in fact it shifts it to towns and municipalities that may be less equipped to handle it, he theorized.

And it seems to happen not only in schools and other social services, but also for police, who may be used to issuing traffic tickets and little else. “Municipal police, courts and jails operate in concert to exacerbate black poverty and harass black people who dare to intrude into white neighborhoods,” claimed Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCityDefenders, which represents poor people in the St. Louis area.

Even when there’s no overt discrimination, there are other stress factors, Berube claimed. Poor people who’ve moved to the suburbs tend to be farther away from their jobs, and in many areas where public transportation is poor; there are few ways to make the connections needed to get there.

“The irony of this situation is that urban centers are experiencing a renaissance with population and employers leaving the suburbs and returning to the urban core,” said GeorgettePhillips, a dean at the College of Business and Economics at Lehigh University.

Bear in mind that these are essays and interpretations of census data and not everyone, even in academia, agrees with them.

Poverty rates are still much higher in cities and lower in the suburbs,” said Joseph Cortright, who writes for City Observatory, an urban policy think tank in Portland, Oregon. “Gentrification has almost no impact on this.”

Optimists point out that the latest census report for 2015 conveys almost unremitting good news. Poverty, which affects minorities disproportionately, has fallen more than 1 percent in a single year, and 3.5 million Americans have worked their way out of poverty.

But Berube and his colleagues would argue that 43 million are still in poverty – and many of them now live in the suburbs. For them, he wanted to see housing subsidies, planning for affordable housing and the overall “safety net” regionalized rather than kept at the municipal level.

None of these, however, are answers to the racial anger that, increasingly, is outside everyone’s front door.   

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.