There's a hidden poverty lurking in American suburbs


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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

In 1990, US cities had roughly 9.5 million people living in poverty - about 1 million more than the number of people living in poverty in the suburbs at the time.


Nearly three decades later, that ratio has taken a surprising turn: 2014 data show that cities had roughly 13 million poor people, while the suburban poor totaled nearly 17 million.

It's a troubling trend, but one few people seem to have noticed.

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That's according to Scott Allard, a professor at the University of Washington and author of "Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty," a new book that exposes and explains the hidden poverty in American suburbs. It debunks the myth that the suburbs are an idyllic, middle-class paradise immune to drug abuse and unemployment. The reality today is far more bleak, he contends.

"Our discourse is so focused on urban poverty, even though poverty trends have changed dramatically," Allard told Business Insider.


"Places in Need" shows that researchers, policymakers, and journalists have all overlooked the growing trend of suburban poverty. The misconception is partly reflected in how much attention urban-area poverty earns in the press compared to suburban poverty, he's found.

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Places in Need

Despite the overwhelming shifts that took place between 1990 and 2014, news media showed little to no awareness that a shift was taking place, according to Allard's research. If anything, he said, the public got the sense that cities were getting worse, while suburbs remained as picture-perfect as ever.

"I think these narratives are really powerful, and really kind of blind spots," Allard said.

Poverty has been a creeping presence in the suburbs for the last few decades. As in cities, the disproportionate growth of low-wage jobs and decline of service-sector jobs has led to larger concentrations of people living at or below the poverty line.

The recession of 2008 accelerated much of this decline, which began in the early 2000s, Allard's research has found. Even when the nation began its climb to economic recovery in the 2010s, the suburbs continued to sink into poverty. More jobs sprang up, but not the kinds that helped people live secure, meaningful lives.


Allard said technological disruption and the resulting economic effects could also explain some of the decline. Online retailers like Amazon have made shopping malls and big-box stores less necessary. In turn, legacy retailers have filed for bankruptcy and been forced to lay off their staff, many of whom live locally.

From Allard's perspective, the future is grim. As more people move into cities, particularly younger generations in search of job opportunities, the suburbs they leave behind will remain vulnerable to economic decline.

"Given the historic heights of poverty in urban and suburban America in recent years," Allard wrote, "it seems quite possible that the next economic downturn will push the poverty in cities and suburbs beyond anything in our recent experience."

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