Suburbanization of Poverty Isolates a Growing Number of Americans

Poverty is no longer a predominantly urban problem — and the suburbs are no longer the refuge of the upper classes. There are now almost 3 million more poor people living in suburbs than in cities, according to a new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution. While cities still have a much higher poverty rate, poverty in the suburbs is growing twice as fast: Between 2000 and 2011, the suburban poor population grew by 64 percent, compared to 29 percent in cities.

That means more people living without cars in places designed exclusively for cars. In the suburbs, destinations are farther apart and getting to many places involves traveling on wide, high-speed roads where walking or biking is especially dangerous. Transit access is spotty and infrequent, where it exists at all. And providing transportation services to the poor in spread-out areas is less efficient and more expensive than in compact cities.

“Overall, in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, 700,000 households do not have a vehicle and are not served by public transit of any kind, and 95 percent of those households are suburban,” the authors write.

Kneebone and Berube tell the story of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, which used to be a middle-class bedroom community for workers at the Westinghouse Electric Company and other thriving businesses in the Pittsburgh area. Diminished employment opportunities have reduced the population by more than a quarter and increased the poverty rate from 8 to 11 percent:

Low-income residents of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, often can't afford to buy or maintain cars -- and the community lacks effective transit service. Photo: ##

Among the more pressing problems facing the growing low-income population in Penn Hills is access to transportation. The suburb covers nineteen square miles, has more than twenty distinct neighborhoods, and is traversed by an interstate highway, a few major state roads, and a series of local roads with only a few sidewalks that wind their way up and down the hilly terrain. Infrastructure in some parts of the township resembles that of a rural community more than a major metropolitan suburb. More often now, residents must navigate these byways without a car. By 2008–10, almost one in ten (about 1,700) Penn Hills households lacked access to a vehicle, notably more than three decades earlier, when the local population was much larger.

Public transportation service, unfortunately, is dwindling. Sociologist Alexandra Murphy profiled a predominantly black, low-income Penn Hills neighborhood where many residents have no car and many more cannot keep up with the expenses of the maintenance, repairs, and gas required to ensure that their vehicles run reliably. One bus line serves the community but comes only a few times in the morning (into the city) and a few times in the late afternoon to early evening (back out of the city). As Murphy described, budget cuts at the Allegheny County Port Authority have left many more of Penn Hills’s neighborhoods and residents with limited public transit options, including none on the weekends. These cuts have left many residents struggling to gain and maintain employment, particularly those working late shifts in the city or trying to get to jobs in neighboring suburbs.

Rather finding a better quality of life in the suburbs, the growing population of poor suburban residents find themselves isolated and less able to access public services. Getting to Head Start or the WIC office is difficult for families without reliable access to transportation, Berube and Kneebone write.

Kneebone has also done extensive research on job sprawl. More than 43 percent of jobs in metropolitan areas are located more than ten miles from downtown. “Moreover, the sectors most likely to employ less skilled workers — retail and wholesale trade, leisure and hospitality, personal services — are even more suburbanized than average,” the authors write. “These trends might suggest better access to employment opportunities for the growing number of low-income residents in suburbia. But that is often not the case. In many metropolitan areas, growth in suburban poverty and growth in suburban jobs occur in different parts of the region.”

And all too often, those neighborhoods aren’t connected by transit.

While the lower cost of housing in the suburbs is often the draw for low-income families, the higher cost of transportation can sneak up on them. In the 25 largest metro areas, low-income households spend an average of 27 percent of their income on transportation costs.

In suburban areas, even poor residents get to work by driving alone 74 percent of the time. And low-income people pay more for their cars than their higher-income counterparts. Auto loans cost lower-income drivers an average of two percentage points more, and insurance costs them an average of 40 percent more. Plus, they often have older vehicles that require more repairs, which low-income families often can’t pay for. Researcher Alexandra Murphy found that many Penn Hills residents “would go through periods with one or more cars out of service because of the high cost of repairs.”

Transit would help families who find themselves in this situation, but it often doesn’t reach them – at least not in any useful way. While 77 percent of working-age residents in low-income suburban neighborhoods have at least one transit stop within three-quarters of a mile from home, these residents can reach only 4 percent of metropolitan jobs within a 45-minute commute.

In part, that’s because the traditional hub-and-spoke transit model, designed to bring suburban commuters in and out of downtown (where the jobs used to be), is increasingly obsolete. Suburb-to-suburb travel is indirect and time-consuming.

Berube and Kneebone say that public policy hasn’t kept pace with the rise of poverty in the suburbs. People still largely see it as an urban problem, and the vast majority of funds available for anti-poverty programs are located in cities. But high-quality transit service is an anti-poverty program, and one that is desperately needed in the suburbs.

12 thoughts on Suburbanization of Poverty Isolates a Growing Number of Americans

  1. I don’t believe that lower income people pay more for cars. There are three basic car-use paradigms:

    1. Buy a cheap used car and run it into the ground.
    2. Buy a cheap used car and do repairs yourself.
    3. Buy an expensive car and have the dealer maintain it.

    Poor people do 1&2, and rich people do 3. Even if the loan rate is higher, poor people are buying less expensive cars. Their repairs are probably less expensive too, even if it hurts them more.

    THAT SAID, not really the point of the article. Basically we have people driving in places that need walking (the rich in cities) and people taking transit where driving is expected. That’s not a great situation.

  2. I don’t know about that, there’s a lot of predatory loan practices that can lead to some extreme interest payments over time. I think the main point isn’t that poor people spend more than someone maintaining a bentley, so much as they spend more (much more) of their income even on the cheapest car possible.

  3. Without question, they pay a larger share of their limited income on transportation than wealthier households do.

  4. Seems like car sharing services would be very useful in suburbs like this with little or no transit.

  5. Interesting to cite issues with Penn Hills, the largest township in Pennsylvania, though, I’ve always been skeptical with how suburbs are quantified. Especially in the Pittsburgh area, there exist very small villages, towns and boroughs that incorporate around a main street of businesses or one large business, and they historically never really had a need for 24/7 transportation options to/from places outside the community. Although these small independent municipalities are within a short bus ride of downtown Pittsburgh they aren’t suburbs, per se. The infill between these small municipalities and Pittsburgh is the sprawl, but they too are another independent municipality!

    We have a lot of governments – some are 19th century industrial relics others are 20th century cul-de-sac’ed tax shelters.

  6. On the transportation side of the equation, the outlook for confronting poverty is abysmal.

    Despite decades of legislative mandates, a significant history of successful litigation, and much hard work by community groups and faith-based institutions, we can’t seen to understand and value in our planning and investment strategies the fact that environmental justice communities have different transportation needs than the broader, largely car-oriented, traveling public. To compound the problem, there is institutionalized indifference to the import of considering disproportionate impacts.

    To illustrate, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is currently undertaking a major investment study (environmental impact statement) for Chicago’s I-290 corridor. The foundational element of an environmental impact statement is the Purpose and Need — it forms the cornerstone of alternatives evaluation by way of establishing project area transportation needs. While the IDOT is aware of concentrations of low to moderate income families and individuals in the corridor (environmental justice communities), the Purpose and Need does not mention the term “environmental justice” and the only reference to “poor” is in their characterization of interchange operations.

    Efforts to call the IDOT’s attention to glaring deficiencies in their process have simply been rebuffed with suggestion that their standard approach to highway studies implicitly includes needs associated with EJ populations. If that were true, however, the legislative and legal record surrounding EJ populations and major capital investments would not exist, as the standard process which has remained essentially unchanged over decades would be the only set of rules necessary to guide agency planning and decision-making associated with major capital projects involving and impacting EJ populations.

    Clearly, the usual suspects appearing in highway studies, e.g., “Improve safety for all users”, “Address facility deficiencies”, “Improve regional and local mobility”, etc., all of which are then fleshed-out in terms of highway design and capacity constraints, are not what is specified or intended in federal statute, nor sufficient to prevail in the face of NEPA or civil rights litigation . . . yet they proceed, anyway — oblivious to their legal obligation and insensitive to the outcomes they cultivate, at least the outcomes not attached to ramp geometry, speed, and vehicle (not person) throughput.

    If we cannot gain effective consideration of EJ populations in the context of a project area that is representative of conditions that precipitated EJ regulations in the first place — urban areas that have long suffered disproportionate impacts of our highway-oriented investments without sharing in the benefits — then the growing concentrations of suburban poor face a seemingly insurmountable barrier to having their unique transportation needs addressed.

  7. Yep – they spend a larger share of their income on everything they buy. They fore-go buying things that others view essential. It isn’t a question of (1), (2), or (3). It could be a choice between feeding the kids today and paying the heating bill.

    If there’s not a viable transportation alternative to gain access to and maintain employment, it is difficult for limited income families and individuals to “climb out of poverty.” Rather than craft policies and make investments that endeavor to cultivate improved employment access by non-automobile methods, we invest in strategies that perpetuate and expand the opportunity gap – we keep people poor rather than help them to help themselves.

    A car does not come without significant costs, and the costs are only increasing over time. There’s insurance, fuel, maintenance, licensing and registration fees, etc., etc. Add to that the high likelihood of an increasing prevalence of road pricing strategies and it equates to the inability of low to moderate income families not being able to own one – not even a junker.

  8. They did an article on a non-profit car share in Buffalo that did just that, on a small scale

  9. I grew up in a very sprawled out, pretty exclusively white “suburban” area (but not economically tied to an “urban” area) and this is a HUGE problem. The entire area was built around cars, where a short trip/commute would be considered 5 miles. The area has a decent economy and probably would be characterized as “middle class” because of tourism, but most locals, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, are retail/food workers whose lives depend on their cars. Car breaks down? Better hope you have the money/hookup to get it fixed immediately, because there is no way to get around otherwise…basically, you either bum rides, or take an expensive cab (which are few and far between). Most people take out high interest loans for their cars, because they have bad/no credit, and those cheap cars tend to be less reliable. Also, because of the huge gas price spike a few years ago, the used car market was flooded with SUVs, so now you have low income people buying cheap SUVs that guzzle gas, adding that to their list of expenses. Obviously, some of this comes down to personal choices, but all of the options are sub-optimal, so there’s very little room to make truly “good” choices.

  10. This story is a bit overstated. Penn Hills isn’t a high-income community, but iit is 2/3 white and its poverty rate of 11 percent is lower than most American central cities, and it is cheek by jowl with Fox Chapel, one of the region’s richest suburbs. So I suspect it is not as isolated from suburban jobs as many poor suburbs are. (For more data on Penn Hills, go to If you are looking for car-dependent, poor suburbs there are probably better (or should I say, worse) examples out there.

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