The violent confrontations between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, highlight the rapid demographic shift in the suburbs, which are now home to a majority of the nation's poor.
The nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas have seen dramatic growth in poverty in the suburbs that surround them, according to the Brookings Institution. The number of suburban neighborhoods where more than 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line more than doubled during the 2000s, the research organization found.
Not only did nearly every one of these areas see suburban poverty grow during that decade, but poverty also grew more concentrated in specific neighborhoods.
By 2012, 38 percent of poor residents in the suburbs lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher, according to Brookings. For poor black residents, 53 percent lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher.
"At the start of the 2000s, the five census tracts that fall within Ferguson's border registered poverty rates ranging between 4 and 16 percent," Brookings' analyst Elizabeth Kneebone wrote in a recent blog post. "However, by 2008-2012 almost all of Ferguson's neighborhoods had poverty rates at or above the 20 percent threshold at which the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge."
These effects include lack of access to jobs and health care, sub-standard schools and higher crime rates. "We find that suburban poor neighborhoods are more likely to be organizationally deprived than urban poor neighborhoods, especially with respect to organizations that promote upward mobility," Alexandra Murphy of the University of Michigan's National Poverty Center wrote in a report last year.
Ferguson itself is emblematic of the impact of poverty on America's suburbs. The town's unemployment rate has more than doubled in recent years, from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 about one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four), and 44 percent fell below twice that level. Ferguson's per capita income of $21,000 ranks it 88th out of Missouri's 140 cities, according to BiggestUSCities.com, while its median household income of $36,645 is the state's 103rd highest.
"For those [Ferguson] residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third," Kneebone said. "The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade."
Concurrently with the rise in poverty has been a shift in the racial composition of many suburbs around the U.S. This change has frequently not been reflected in the leadership of those cities and towns.
The clashes in Ferguson came in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a police officer. Both the town's government and police force are overwhelmingly white, while the city's population is 67 percent African-American.
According to a study by the American Communities Project at American University, "In 2000, the urban suburbs were 67 percent non-Hispanic white, 12 percent African American and 13 percent Hispanic. By 2012, the non-Hispanic white population had dropped to 59 percent , the African-American population had climbed to 13 percent and the Hispanic population was roughly 18 percent."
Nationwide, the poor have lower participation rates in elections and this appears to be the case in Ferguson as well. While the city has about 15,000 residents 18 or older, only about 1,350 votes were cast in last April's mayoral election, in which Mayor James Knowles III ran unopposed. Furthermore, in the last city council election held in 2013 there were about 1,500 votes cast. In 2011, one city councilman won his seat with a grand total of 72 votes.
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