For many, the suburbs provide no escape from poverty

For America’s minorities -- African Americans, Latinos and others -- statistics show they’ve become much more integrated into communities in the last 50 years. Even surburbia, once the refuge of white flight but considered unreachable by many inner-city residents, 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 they now represent a combined 35 percent of the suburban population. 

Of course, many minorities have settled in prosperous suburban neighborhoods and live much like millions of middle-class Americans everywhere. 

But no matter what statistics show, what TV and social media often portray is rioting, racial tension, anger and outrage, such as what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer. This suburb of St. Louis 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 suburbs? 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 aren’t idyllic for newcomers “of color.” For one thing, many don’t move far. Blacks and other migrants often end up in the inner ring of the suburbs surrounding the city -- not 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.

And if they were poor before relocating, they’re also likely to bring that poverty with them. Making matters worse, the needs of low-income minorities can overload suburban municipalities that aren’t prepared to provide expanded services, said Scott Allard, a professor at the University of Washington. For those people, moving doesn’t end the problem of poverty. In fact, it shifts their problems to towns and municipalities that may be less equipped to handle them, Allard theorized.

And the problems seem to happen not only in schools and for other social services, but also for suburban 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, other stress factors play a role, Berube said. Poor people who’ve moved to the suburbs tend to live farther away from their jobs, and in many areas where public transportation is inadequate, those who depend on it have fewer ways to make the connections needed to get to work.

“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 the Furman Center report contains 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, fell more than 1 percent in that one year, and 3.5 million Americans have worked their way out of that category. 

But the latest statistics show that poverty remains more of a problem for certain minorities than the population as a whole. Both African Americans and Native Americans have poverty levels approaching 30 percent, and Latino poverty is above 20 percent. By contrast, poverty rates for whites and Asians are only a little over 10 percent.

While poverty may have gone down, the percentages haven’t changed a lot, according to a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation

Berube and some of his colleagues argue that even with 2015’s overall drop, 43 million Americans are still in poverty -- and many of them now live in the suburbs. He wants to see housing subsidies, planning for affordable housing and the overall social safety net regionalized rather than kept at the municipal level.

Phillips, however, disagrees with his approach of linking race and poverty. “Decreasing racial segregation and deconcentrating poverty are both admirable and worthy goals,” she said. “However, we risk missing the mark in both if we continue ... to fuse the two.”

  • 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.