The fires of Ferguson, Mo., run counter to the narrative about suburbia, the story Americans tell themselves about strip malls and rolling lawns, about McMansions and upward mobility. Instead, the unrest in the St. Louis suburb after the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer evokes images of 1960s-era Watts, of burning inner-city neighborhoods in New York, Washington, Detroit and Chicago.
The tear gas and protests in Ferguson were sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown, but they point to deeper, more pervasive problems that plague suburbs across the country: rapidly increasing poverty, scarce jobs and even scarcer resources.
“Poverty is rising in suburban communities and it’s smashing the stereotype of calm and prosperity,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “All over the country outside major central cities, the rate of poverty in the suburbs is exceeding that of the (urban) places people used to leave to escape.”
In Ferguson, which has a population of just over 21,000, the poor population rose 99 percent in the past decade, said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.” (Overall, the poor population in the St. Louis suburbs rose 68 percent.)
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Across the country, more poor people live in suburbs than live in cities.
Perceptions have yet to catch up with how radically the geography of poverty has shifted, Kneebone said. Without an up-to-date understanding of the complexity of poverty, suburbs often don’t have the resources needed to help their impoverished populations, she said.
From 2000 to 2011, the number of Americans living below the federal poverty level ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012) rose about 36 percent, to 46.2 million. Meanwhile, the number of the suburban poor grew 64 percent.
Poverty also has shown to be on the rise in Seattle suburbs. Last year, Brookings Institution researchers using the federal benchmark for poverty from 2010, which for a family of four was an annual income of $22,300, found that two out of three Seattle-metro-area residents who were at or below the poverty line were living in the suburbs.
In fact, the number of poor people in the suburbs increased by 80 percent between 2000 and 2011 — with much of that growth concentrated in the cities south of Seattle.
The rate outpaced the nation’s and ranked the Puget Sound region as the 23rd fastest growing for suburban poverty among the largest 100 metro areas.
At the same time, in the core cities of Seattle, Everett and Tacoma, poverty grew by 31 percent.
Nationally, there’s no single path to poverty in the suburbs. Some of suburbia’s poor are the formerly middle class who were walloped by the 2007-09 recession, losing jobs and homes when the housing bubble popped. Some are immigrants who bypassed the traditional urban route and headed straight for the suburbs. Others are lower-income African Americans and Latinos who were pushed out of gentrifying cities as housing prices skyrocketed. Other people, some of them with federal housing vouchers, left cities looking for jobs, safer neighborhoods or better schools.
“The movement to the suburbs is really about people moving to opportunity,” said john a. powell (he spells his name with lowercase letters), a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Hass Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
“But low-income people have not landed in places of high opportunity in the suburbs,” Powell said. “They move from depressed cities to depressed suburbs. They are trying to move to opportunity, and they are failing. Opportunity is moving away from them.”
In the suburbs, as in the rest of the country, race and poverty are inextricably linked. There are prosperous African-American suburbs, like Maryland’s Prince George’s County (outside Washington), California’s Ladera Heights (Los Angeles) and New York’s Hillcrest (New York City). And yes, most poor suburban residents are white. But increasingly, the faces of suburban poverty are black and brown.
People of color in the suburbs are disproportionately likely to be poor and much more likely to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. The disparities are stark, Kneebone said: More than half of African Americans and Latinos live in poor suburban neighborhoods, compared with 23 percent of white suburbanites.
Case in point: Ferguson, where 25 percent of blacks live below the poverty line, compared with 11 percent of whites. (Ferguson is divided along strictly black/white lines; its Asian and Latino populations are quite small.) The median income for African Americans in Ferguson is $32,500, compared with $53,400 for whites. The black unemployment rate in Ferguson is 19 percent; white unemployment is 6.7 percent. In 1990, Ferguson was a majority-white enclave; today 67 percent of the population is African American. Its leadership structure, from City Hall to the police, remains overwhelmingly white.
Broader changes in the U.S. economy also have changed the character of the suburbs. Jobs have moved out of cities into the suburbs, even with the revitalization of many cities. But most are not the well-paying manufacturing jobs that bolstered the urban middle class for decades. Instead, suburban jobs are concentrated in the retail or construction sector — jobs that tend to pay less and were decimated by the recession.
In many ways, being poor in the suburbs is harder than it is in cities.
For one, transportation is often a problem. Few suburbs have the kind of reliable public-transit systems of cities like Chicago, New York and Washington, making owning a car imperative. Commutes are often lengthy and expensive; a sick child in day care needing to be picked up from the other side of town can present a crisis for a parent who could lose a much-needed job.
For poor suburbanites, having a car can be both a lifeline and a liability. In St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, there are 90 municipalities. In a nine-mile strip, a driver can drive through as many as 16 of them, said Thomas Harvey, co-founder and executive director of the Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit agency that provides legal services for the indigent in St. Louis County. The Arch City Defenders released a study of the municipal courts in St. Louis County and found that in Ferguson, court fees were the suburb’s second-largest source of revenue.
Often, Harvey said, their clients will get traffic tickets driving through one of those 16 jurisdictions. Perhaps they’re driving a car that needs repairs before it can pass inspection. They can’t afford to pay the tickets and their licenses are suspended.
“These are people who are making a choice between paying their electricity and getting their car fixed,” Harvey said. He added that his group’s study also found that in Ferguson, 86 percent of traffic stops involved black motorists, although blacks make up just 67 percent of the population. Whites make up 29 percent of the population of Ferguson but account for just 12.7 percent of vehicle stops. Blacks in Ferguson were much more likely to be searched by police, although whites were more likely to be found with contraband, the study found.
Ferguson has a large apartment complex just across from where Michael Brown was shot. But most suburbs don’t have the kind of bleak projects that put inner cities like Chicago on the poverty map. Privation can look different in the suburbs, but poor is still poor.
And most suburbs aren’t equipped — and in some cases, aren’t willing — to handle the problems presented by its poor populations. Most government and nonprofit money is concentrated in the cities, leaving the suburbs short on services. Few have adequate job training, foreclosure counseling, food banks or multilingual social workers.
That’s partly because suburbs with large impoverished populations don’t have the tax base to fund such programs, said Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association in suburban Chicago.
Some communities are battling the suburban poverty crisis by encouraging jurisdictions to work together, combining resources and sharing solutions. In Montgomery County, Md., county government worked with local churches and other nonprofits to create the Neighborhood Opportunity Network, which provides help for those in need of such things as paying utility bills, health care and foreclosure prevention.
The city and county of Denver partnered with investors to create a fund that would build affordable housing close to mass transit, so that lower-income residents would have easy access to jobs.
Chicago’s south suburbs have 43 municipalities, many of which have populations and face problems similar to Ferguson’s. When the housing industry tanked at the end of the past decade, government officials collaborated to apply for federal government assistance. The idea was to think about the needs they had as a collective region of 650,000 inhabitants, rather than just that of individual towns, said Janice Morrissy, deputy executive director of housing for the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association.
Information from Seattle Times archives was used in this report.