Poverty is no longer a predominantly urban problem — and the suburbs are no longer the refuge of the upper classes. There are now almost 3 million more poor people living in suburbs than in cities, according to a new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution. While cities still have a much higher poverty rate, poverty in the suburbs is growing twice as fast: Between 2000 and 2011, the suburban poor population grew by 64 percent, compared to 29 percent in cities.
That means more people living without cars in places designed exclusively for cars. In the suburbs, destinations are farther apart and getting to many places involves traveling on wide, high-speed roads where walking or biking is especially dangerous. Transit access is spotty and infrequent, where it exists at all. And providing transportation services to the poor in spread-out areas is less efficient and more expensive than in compact cities.
“Overall, in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, 700,000 households do not have a vehicle and are not served by public transit of any kind, and 95 percent of those households are suburban,” the authors write.
Kneebone and Berube tell the story of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, which used to be a middle-class bedroom community for workers at the Westinghouse Electric Company and other thriving businesses in the Pittsburgh area. Diminished employment opportunities have reduced the population by more than a quarter and increased the poverty rate from 8 to 11 percent:
Among the more pressing problems facing the growing low-income population in Penn Hills is access to transportation. The suburb covers nineteen square miles, has more than twenty distinct neighborhoods, and is traversed by an interstate highway, a few major state roads, and a series of local roads with only a few sidewalks that wind their way up and down the hilly terrain. Infrastructure in some parts of the township resembles that of a rural community more than a major metropolitan suburb. More often now, residents must navigate these byways without a car. By 2008–10, almost one in ten (about 1,700) Penn Hills households lacked access to a vehicle, notably more than three decades earlier, when the local population was much larger.