Poverty and Growth: Retro-Urbanists Cling to the Myth of Suburban Decline


In the wake of the post-2008 housing bust, suburbia has become associated with many of the same ills long associated with cities, as our urban-based press corps and cultural elite cheerfully sneer at each new sign of decline. This conceit was revealed most recently in a a studyreleased Monday by the Brookings Institution--which has become something of a Vatican for anti-suburban theology--trumpeting the news that there are now 1 million more poor people in America's suburbs than in its cities.

America’s suburbs, noted one British journalist, are becoming “ghost towns” as middle-class former suburbanites migrate to the central core. That’s simply untrue: both the 2010 Census and other more recent analyses demonstrate that America is becoming steadily more suburban: 44 million Americans live in America’s 51 major metropolitan areas, while nearly 122 million Americans live in their suburbs. In other words, nearly three quarters of metropolitan Americans live in suburbs, not core cities.

The main reason there are now more poor people in the suburbs is that there are now many more people in the suburbs, which have represented almost all of America’s net population growth in recent years. Despite trite talk about “suburban ghettos,” suburbs have a poverty rate roughly half that of urban centers (20.9 percent in core compared to 11.4 percent in the suburbs as of 2010).

To be sure, poverty in suburbs, or anywhere else, must be addressed. But not long ago, suburbs were widely criticized for being homogeneous; now they are mocked for having many of the problems associated with being “inclusive.”

Many poor suburbs are developing because minorities and working-class populations are moving to suburbs. Yet even accounting for these shifts, cities continue to contain pockets of wealth and gentrification that give way to swathes of poverty. In Brooklyn, it’s a short walk east from designer shoe stores and locavore eateries to vast stretches of slumscape. The sad fact is that in American cities, poor people—not hipsters or yuppies—constitute the fastest-growing population. In the core cities of the 51 metropolitan areas, 81 percent of the population increase over the past decade was under the poverty line, compared to 32 percent of the suburban population increase.

In Chicago, oft cited as an exemplar of “the great inversion” of affluence from suburbs to cities, the city poverty rate stands at 22.5 percent, compared to 10 percent in the suburbs. In New York, roughly 20 percent of the city population lives in poverty, compared to only 9 percent in the suburbs.

Looking at it from a national perspective, most of the major metropolitan counties with the highest rates of poverty are all urban core, starting with the Bronx, with 30 percent of people living under the poverty line, followed by Orleans Parish (New Orleans), Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Richmond, Va. In contrast all 10 large counties with the lowest poverty rates are all suburban.

This divergence has an impact on other measurements of social health. Despite substantial improvement in crime rates in “core cities” over the past two decades, suburban areas generally have substantially lower crime rates, according to Brookings Institution’s own research. Yet at the same time suburban burgs dominate the list of safest cities over 100,000 led by Irvine and Temecula, Calif., followed by Cary, N.C. Overall suburban crime remains far lower than that in core cities.

A review of 2011 crime data, as reported by the FBI, indicates that the violent-crime rate in the core cities of major metropolitan areas was approximately 3.4 times that of the suburbs. (The data covers 47 of the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1 million population, with data not being available for Chicago, Las Vegas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Providence.)

In the least suburbanized core cities, that is places that have annexed little or no territory since before World War II (New York, Philadelphia, Washington, etc.) the violent crime rate was 4.3 times the suburban rate. Among the 24 metropolitan areas that had strong central cities at the beginning of World War II but which have significant amounts of postwar suburban territory (Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, etc.), the violent crime rate is 3.1 times the suburban rate. Among the metropolitan areas that did not have strong pre–World War II core cities (San Jose, Austin, Phoenix, etc.), the violent crime rate was 2.2 times the suburban rate. Basically, the more suburban the metropolis, the lower the crime rate.  

Rather than castigating suburbs for exaggerated dysfunction, retro-urbanists would be much better served focusing on how to correct and confront the issue of poverty, which continues to concentrate heavily in the urban core and elsewhere in America.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

This piece originally appeared in the The Daily Beast.

Suburban neighborhood photo by Bigstock.

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