The idea of suburban America conjures up images of Ward and June Cleaver, of safe streets and good schools, prosperity and homogeny.
But new findings released Monday by the Brookings Institution are flipping such conventional thinking about American suburbs on its head: In the past decade and for the first time, the majority of poor people were living not in big cities but in suburbs.
Nowhere is suburbanization of poverty more evident than in South King County, where affordable housing has drawn immigrants and refugees coming here from across the globe as well as low-income families forced from Seattle by skyrocketing housing costs.
The findings are contained in a new book: “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” which examines this trend in the 100 largest metropolitan areas across the country, including the Seattle metro area, where 3.5 million people are spread across King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
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Using the federal benchmark for poverty, which for a family of four in 2010 was an annual income of $22,300, Brookings researchers 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.
“We spent years going to different parts of the country to see what this looked like on the ground, how people were experiencing it and what the institutions were doing to respond,” said Alan Berube, one of the book’s authors.
“South King County was for us one of the most eye-opening places … as it captures in one place a lot of what’s going on in suburban America.”
Suburban and urban poor are not so very different, the findings suggest, with similar household structures and demographics. But where they live influences the kinds of educational and economic opportunities as well as the range of public services available to them.
“Suburbanization of poverty is not a good or bad thing,” Berube said. “It depends on where it is. It makes a difference if there are high-quality schools in a safe neighborhood. If you interview a random poor person in South King and ask if they’d want to live there or on the Eastside, they’d probably say the Eastside, that it’s nice.”
The Brookings findings fly in the face of the image Americans have long cultivated about suburbs — born of white flight during the mid-20th century, their rise and spread aided in large part by public policies, including federal housing and economic-development subsidies, state and local land-use policies and environmental regulations.
But the findings surprise no one who lives and works with the population across South King County — city managers and city councils, human-service providers, business owners and educators.
Classrooms in schools across South King County teem with a mix of cultures and in many of the area’s school districts, more than 100 languages are spoken.
Cities face increased need for interpreter services, and schools for specialized language classes. Some city leaders
bemoan the high costs of diversity and grapple with how to engage this new population.
“You have this incredible refugee population coming from all corners of the earth and landing in Tukwila and communities next door, joining longtime middle-class families that have been there for decades …” Berube said. “There’s incredible diversity that comes with that and challenges for a small community to assist with integration.”
Some community leaders are trying to understand and address the challenge, Berube said.
But “there are others who might have thought: ‘all these immigrants come into our communities, stressing our schools, they don’t have jobs’ and they worry perhaps if they do anything, they might attract more people.”
Part of the challenge, the findings suggest, is that the best policies for improving neighborhoods and delivering social services were not designed with the suburbs in mind.
Small cities such as SeaTac and Tukwila face challenges because of inadequate and unreliable funding.
Ben Wolters, economic and community development director for the city of Kent, said while cities like his were smart about using the resources they have, those resources are “limited and focused on traditional business recruitment and retention.”
Unlike economic-development offices in cities like Seattle, with large numbers of professionals to tackle these challenges, “I have a staff of two — not 20.”
In addition to the influx of new arrivals, Brookings researchers cited a lack of reliable public transportation, thinly spread safety nets designed to help those most in need, and a lack of access to living-wage jobs.
For some job seekers, language remains a barrier to employment.
“What we find is that there have been some successes,” Wolters said. “There are aircraft-component manufacturers who recruit specifically from the immigrant communities through referrals from other immigrant workers.”
Immigrants from the region have also found work in short-haul trucking from the Port of Seattle to destinations in South King, Wolters said.
Asian immigrants operate many small businesses throughout the region,
and many are successful property developers and builders active in the local market.
Wolters pointed to a range of programs at local community colleges — Green River, Shoreline and Highline — focused on providing assistance to budding entrepreneurs.
Berube applauds the creation several decades ago of the South King County Council of Human Services, a consortium of all the cities, social-service organizations and the colleges to address common concerns. Berube is speaking at the group’s annual luncheon on June 25.
The researchers also laud a program called the Road Map, launched four years ago. It brings together hundreds of community groups, educators and leaders from the region’s school districts along with agencies and organizations trying to ensure success of all the area’s children.
“There’s a saying, if you’ve seen one poor suburb, you’ve seen one poor suburb,” Berube said.
“We should create and re-create economic opportunities for people in South King County, but we should also be working to give them access to homes and jobs in higher-opportunity parts of the region, like the Eastside.”
Here is the website for the Brookings Institution: http://www.brookings.edu/events/2013/05/20-suburban-poverty
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.