Confronting the Future in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America

By: Gabriel Kelly ’17

Every Thanksgiving and Christmas I go with my family to visit my grandmother in the place where my father grew up. The neighborhood’s name is Penn Hills, located just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From my car window the neighborhood seems like any other suburban neighborhood. There’s a bustling grocery store anchoring the neighborhood strip mall, a high school nestled behind a local church, and—along the winding side streets—an assortment of houses that seem to be as old as the rolling hills that surround them. I could have never imagined that the problem of suburban poverty could be an issue in a place like this.

In Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, published by the Brookings Institute in May 2013, Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone bring to light an important issue that has been overlooked in the 21st century thus far. The neighborhood referred to at the beginning of this article, where my father grew up, is located on the frontline in America’s fastest growing center of poverty: the suburbs.Berube and Kneebone go on, saying that “since 2000 the population of suburban poor has grown by 64%, as opposed to only 29% in major US cities.” Indeed, 85 of America’s 95 major metropolitan areas reported a rise in suburban poverty levels during the 2000s. According to the book’s authors, today roughly 3 million more poor people live in the suburbs than in America’s cities.

The upsurge in lower paying jobs in the hospitality and retail industries, combined with the fact that three-quarters of home foreclosures now occur in the suburbs, has caused a large influx of low-income workers to migrate to the suburbs seeking affordable housing and jobs. Further, Berube and Kneebone assert that almost 50% of all voucher recipients are located in suburban communities. With this the serious question arises as to whether or not suburban communities are prepared to deal with the rapid increase in the suburban poor population. Currently $85 billion dollars’ worth of “in place” services (centrally-located) are provided for by over 80 federally funded institutions. However not all of these services can reach those in the suburbs, where close to 700,000 people don’t have access to either private or public transportation.

The issue of suburban poverty receives little attention from local, state, or federal governments, even as the wallpaper begins to peel on initiatives serving America’s urban and suburban poor. Government support for the urban poor coupled with affordable housing has indirectly given way to gentrification (see Clybourne Park, and the use of eminent domain, and the Supreme Court Case Kelo v. City of New London (2004)). Instead of addressing real community development problems, struggling neighborhoods are replaced with bohemian style blocks and daytime shopping districts aimed at more affluent consumers. This process has exacerbated the issue of suburban poverty, driving the cost of living in these neighborhoods even higher and displacing hundreds of people who can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods they once called home.

Expansions in public transportation, the regionalization of what are now city-centered social services, greater availability of affordable housing in the city, and increased public awareness can all help to address the growing issue of suburban poverty in the United States.

Now when I go to visit my grandmother I imagine the dream she had for her children—of a better life in the place where all Americans are supposed to have “made it,” suburban America— and I wonder whether those dreams will come true for my generation, given the rise of suburban poverty.

All credits go to the Brookings Institute for any facts, statistics, and quotes used in the making of this article. Check out the book Confronting Suburban Poverty In America, as well as the website,, for interactive neighborhood case studies, fact sheets, graphs, maps, a community action toolkit, and tips on what you can do to help curb the rise of suburban poverty in America.