LOS ANGELES -- Bucking longstanding patterns in the United States, more poor people now live in the nation's suburbs than in urban areas, according to a new analysis.
As poverty mounted throughout the nation over the past decade, the number of poor people living in suburbs surged 67 percent between 2000 and 2011 -- a much bigger jump than in cities, researchers for the Brookings Institution said in a book published Monday. Suburbs still have a smaller percentage of their population living in poverty than cities do, but the sheer number of poor people scattered in the suburbs has jumped beyond that of cities.
Authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube cited a long list of reasons for the shift.
More poor people moved to the suburbs, pulled by more affordable homes or pushed by urban gentrification, the authors said. Some used the increased mobility of housing vouchers, which used to be restricted by area, to seek better schools and safer neighborhoods in suburbia. Still others, including immigrants, followed jobs as the booming suburbs demanded more workers, many for low-paying, service-sector jobs.
Change also came from within. More people in the suburbs slipped into poverty as manufacturing jobs disappeared, the authors found. The housing boom and bust also walloped many homeowners on the outer ridges of metropolitan areas, hitting pocketbooks hard. On top of that, the booming numbers of poor people in the suburbs were driven, in part, by the exploding growth of the suburbs themselves.
The shift caught many communities by surprise, the authors found, with public and private agencies unprepared to meet the need in suburban areas.
"The myth of suburban prosperity has been a stubborn one," said Christopher Niedt, who as academic director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University is familiar with the trend Brookings described. Even as suburban poverty emerged, "many poorer communities were so segregated from the wealthy in suburbs that many people were able to ignore it."
In Irvine, one of the fastest growing cities in California, the estimated number of poor people rose from roughly 12,400 to nearly 21,000 in a decade, Brookings found in its analysis of U.S. Census data. Every month, hundreds of struggling families call or stop into the Irvine offices of Families Forward -- far more people than the Orange County nonprofit can help house. It once handed out groceries to roughly 25 families a week. Now it's more than 160.
In Irvine and other Orange County suburbs, "everything is nicely maintained. Things look good on the surface," said Margie Wakeham, executive director of Families Forward. "But the need has just skyrocketed."