Suburbanization of Poverty: What’s New?

The current trend toward suburbanization of poverty is worth examining. It is incontrovertible that on the whole, the American poor are moving to the suburbs. Simultaneously, city centers are gentrifying, seeing large increases in income, with an influx of rich and upper middle-class people. This could lead to a French-style geography in which the rich live in central cities and the poor outside them. It’s not my intention to doubt that this trend is happening; my question is whether it represents a break from the past.

On the one hand, the consequences of such a trend clearly do represent a break from the past. We’re already seeing demands from business-oriented groups for more transit investment, and a new focus on urbanism in elite magazines. However, this by itself does not mean that the reasons for this trend are at all new. In fact, in one way, we’ve really been seeing the same trend for fifty years, in which both the inner and the outer limits of poverty are pushed outward. What we saw last decade was just a tipping point in which the expansion of the gentrified core was by itself enough to offset the wealth loss coming from the expansion of the ghetto.

The best example for this is New York, whose regional income distribution is arguably more regularly donut-shaped than that of other Americans metro areas, with less of a favored/ill-favored quarter geography. Furthermore, in Manhattan, there is a sharp color line between the Upper East and West Sides and Harlem, which is relatively easy to discern if you’re a resident. Mad Men contains multiple citations establishing Manhattan north of 86th as a bad area, and based on the geography of the 1970s, Joel Garreau placed the boundary at East 86th and West 96th. By the 1990s, we see citations putting the line at West 110th Street; moreover the Upper West Side has joined up with Morningside Heights, itself gentrified, moving the color line up to about West 123rd. This is a decades-long trend, rather than a recent development. Conversely, the boundary between the poor South Bronx and the middle-class North Bronx has, too, moved north over the decades, and is still moving north as the black middle class leaves for greener pastures.

In general, a similar story played out in the first-ring suburbs of many Rust Belt cities, especially in ill-favored quarters: the places that people used to flee the city to are now cities that people flee.

This is not to say that nothing has changed. Harlem and the South Bronx of today are richer than Harlem and the South Bronx of 1980, leading some people to think that they (especially Harlem) have gentrified far more than they actually have. People are no longer abandoning the Bronx in droves. But in terms of relative geographical income across the metropolitan area, we’ve really just witnessed an expansion of the donut going back to at least the establishment of the first modern suburbs in Westchester and Long Island, nearly a hundred years ago.

What we see is therefore inconsistent with the usual story of suburbanization of poverty. The exurbs are not terribly rich, but the Rust Belt exurbs are a far cry from their housing bust-stricken Sunbelt counterparts. Poverty is suburbanizing from the inside out rather than from the outside in, just as wealth and the upwardly mobile middle class did fifty years ago.

Although this implies that suburbia is unsustainable, the way it implies it is different from the usual explanation. It’s not that the future is bad for low-density settlements and good for high-density ones. It’s that the American urban form and political geography, especially but not only in the suburbs, are fundamentally unsustainable, and require constant growth to persist. Greenfield sites have an inherent advantage with respect to pensions, debt, and fossilized community relations;the debt-fueled system of growth in the US encourages moving on to the next tract rather than maintaining what exists. Thus today’s boomburb is tomorrow’s decaying eyesore. This can only be countered in persistently favored quarters, but those by definition only hold a small proportion of the population; not everyone can live in the richest 15% of the region.

The thing to wonder then is not why suburbs are hollowing from the inside out, but why city centers are expanding and gentrifying so rapidly. One answer is that Jane Jacobs was right, and diverse city neighborhoods can resile from the shock of middle-class flight. Indeed, the only significant non-Jacobsian neighborhoods in the expanding cores tend to be projects, and those tend to significantly lag in gentrification (for example, see Stuyvesant Town – and that’s a project that was originally white-only, thus middle-class). On the other hand, the projects are protected by public ownership laws, regardless of urban form, so even if Jacobs was wrong, developers would only eye them after exhausting private buildings.

A second answer is that today’s gentrified cities are something like greenfield sites. It holds up well with the analogy between gentrification today and suburbanization a century ago. That said, this analogy is political and sociological rather than geographical or economic: cities still have to pay pensions, and the buildings that are now selling for a million dollars per apartment are often very old. On the third hand, the social networks of the newcomers are mostly independent from those of the older residents: for example, they rarely send their children to neighborhood public schools, or if they do, they organize a separate school in the same building as the established school; so on the social level they really are greenfield.

That said, in the future, the trend for suburbanization of poverty can accelerate and become different from what it has been since the 1940s, if it reinforces itself. Cities are getting closer to a tipping point of being richer than their suburbs, possibly even to the point of having better social services for the middle class. This is to some extent already occurring with crime, though we’ve seen an absolute decline more than a relative decline in central cities, and is occurring more slowly with schools. Although on the whole the trend among people who care about schools and crime is to move to the suburbs, if the suburbanization of poverty, coming about from movement of people with other concerns, gets to this tipping point, then a large mass of people will abandon much of suburbia in favor of the cities, as urbanist common wisdom holds that they already are.

At least, they will try. The number of people who can live in a city is bounded by the product of household size and the number of available housing units, and the number of available housing units grows glacially in brownfield sites. Here, gentrified cities cannot imitate the properties of greenfield exurbs. As a result, we can expect to see an acceleration of the current trend of demand for cities translating into high housing prices rather than population growth. In such a scenario, cities will not become middle-class, but rather turn into enclaves of the rich and upper middle class. Of course there’s a natural limit on how high rents can go, especially in New York, Chicago, and other cities with large city proper populations, allowing the middle class to be comfortable in their suburban neighborhoods. But a transition to a French urban geography will be very rapid and self-reinforcing, and the rents will take every penny the upper middle class can afford.


  1. Miles Bader

    I lived in Edinburgh for a few years, and there, the city-center seemed largely wealthy and middle-class (and students, but they’re special), with many poor in dense high-rise projects on the outskirts. There were lots of “suburbs”, though they were much nicer than the traditional U.S. suburb, more like the villages from which they probably originally sprung, with much more variety, open green space, and concentration. There was no sense that the city-center (which was extremely nice) was reserved for the wealthy though. One could tell that as the population grew, suburbanization was happening, but it was much gentler and less obviously bad than what happened to the U.S.

    Some government policies I noticed which affected this distribution: (1) “the dole”, and subsidized health care, which meant there was sort of a bottom level beyond which you couldn’t sink just by being unlucky, (2) funny rules if you were on the dole, in which the government would pay any rent, as long as it was what you were paying before you were on the dole (which had the effect of unemployed people living in huge and luxurious city-center apartments!), (3) there were greenbelts, which realllllly seemed to help keep some open space at walkable distances from the city center, and prevent “suburban villages” from turning into undifferentiated sprawl.

    Edinburgh apparently has a significant poverty problems (at the time, they had Europe’s highest rate of HIV, due to the high number of hard drug users…), but it wasn’t really all that obvious. It was sort of weird, really…

  2. Danny

    I think the poverty migration theory is making a major false assumption. My father, an educated (MAcc) white male in his 50s, would probably be a candidate for the suburb-dwelling rich guy stereotype. In reality, he is stuck in an underwater mortgage, and his credibility as a CPA has been undermined by his failed freight transportation business. My home neighborhood probably consists of about 80-90% of the same people who lived there 15 years ago…but they are all poorer. I realize that this is anecdotal, but at least I have a few decades of experience as a suburban poverty veteran. I simply can not find any support for the idea that poverty is moving to the suburbs.

    I think the true story is that poverty stays where the first hit to wealth occurs, and wealth moves elsewhere. People aren’t moving to the burbs because it is cheap and they are poor…they are staying there because they are poor and can’t move.

    And on the same note, I think cities tend to be more resilient for the simple fact that they are cities, and you don’t always need to move to get a new or better job.

    • Nathanael

      Your analysis is very convincing. Thank you for this.

      This raises questions of “when people move”. I now know some people from Michigan. That state is *really* hard hit, and practically everyone except a thin upper class is poor now. Most sit pat where they are until they become unemployed for a signficiant period…. and then move *anywhere* where they can get a job. This often means that they move into burnt-out high-vacancy suburbs of vibrant cities, because they can’t afford the rent in the cities.

      So while I expect that people becoming poor “in place” happens first, and then the wealth moves out of those communities — as you describe — who takes over the vacant buildings? In the really depressed areas, nobody; in the depressed suburbs of areas which are doing OK, it’s the poor who are moving from other regions.

  3. EngineerScotty

    A major unaddressed issue in this article, but highly relevant to the US, is rural poverty–including both the countryside itself, and small towns which support neighboring agriculture. There is a lot of poverty in both places, as agricultural productivity continues to improve (and foreign agriculture becomes a bigger part of the market). Many jobs in agriculture are seasonal in nature, and thus attract migrant workers; and given that the countryside is rural, there simply isn’t the critical mass necessary for much in the way of other economic opportunities to arise.

    • Nathanael

      Rural poverty is extremely severe and getting worse.

      There’s also an element which nobody talks about but which I see firsthand. In smaller towns (i.e. ones without many-many-miles-deep suburb belts) which are doing relatively OK, the poor live so far away from town (to get low rents) that they are actually living in rural areas and commuting in. The lifeline for these people is their cars, and increased driving costs can really trap them.

  4. Steve

    Alon, I would suggest that your explanations (a) and (b) are not in such dichotomy as you imply, but rather synergize; that is, that elements of each theory explain the deficiencies of the other, so that together they constitute the rudiments of a framework. That’s the idea I’ve been trying to get at lately.

    Danny, one anecdote does not a theory make. Yes, it’s true that there are suburbs that are declining in place, but there are also other macro-trends that are occurring, namely, the suburbanization of the lower middle class (as they increasingly are able to afford it), coupled with the northward march of the poorest areas out of the traditional ghettos and into historical lower-middle-class enclaves. This is mostly occurring in the black middle class, but there are enough deviations (Northeast Philadelphia is seeing a succession where the white lower middle class is being replaced by black and Puerto Rican middle classes, while poverty and its effects are expanding immediately south of this belt–predominantly in neighborhoods previously populated by the black middle class, for example) that it cannot be told as a total truism. My inclination is that these two processes–invasion/succession and in situ impoverishment–are happening side-by-side, but among different population elements (at the moment).

    Interestingly, if Alon is right and the cities reach critical mass and soon become much more desirable places to live, the obvious effect would be very rapid gentrification throughout the older urban core and prewar suburbia–essentially, an expansion of the core (whose pulses determine the rate of invasion and succession) so fast that it metaphorically just shoves the rest of that cycle clean out of the city altogether. This process could take as little as a decade.

    My experience in Philadelphia (and Alon’s in New York, I’d bet) suggest that this process has already begun.

    Scotty, that is a clear deficiency, and one no paradigm I am aware of can even make an attempt at explaining.

    • Alon Levy

      My experience in New York is the opposite of yours in Philly: so far the trend does not seem to have reached a tipping point, and is not too different from what’s happened since the Jane Jacobs era except that it’s more noticeable now. I’m basing this on a few people I know whose parents moved out to the suburbs specifically for the schools, and on the fact that although the funding gap between the city and the suburbs is rapidly shrinking, the achievement gap has only shrunk a little if at all. With crime, too many people I know consider relatively tame parts of the city bad, such as Washington Heights and Inwood. That said, school funding takes some time to have an effect, and on top of this an influx of richer people is going to make city schools look better regardless of any underlying improvements; this is why I think that the processes that are happening right now are going to lead to a tipping point sometime in the next 10-20 years.

    • Charlie Gardner

      Steve – as to core/suburban gentrification, that is definitely possible, but prewar suburbia, also, had its wealthy, middle-class and poor neighborhoods. It can be very revealing to look back to the 1940 census to examine the income/housing value distribution of that time, and to compare that to the observed geography of gentrification in the present day. By and large, the gentrifying areas are those in which the wealthy and middle-class of the 1910-1940 period bought homes, homes that filtered down in the 1940-1970 period as the succeeding generation was lured out to new development on the fringes. The areas that were poor in 1940 were poor in 1970 and are often still poor today. The quality of the underlying housing stock has a lot to do with this, I think.

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  6. John

    Something else I think is interesting to consider is the geographic space occupied by the poverty. If the number of poor people remains relatively constant (or grows), then I would assume that as the poverty belt moves outward (or is pushed outward by the gentrified hole in the doughnut), it would occupy a larger geographic space due to the lower housing densities. It may make poverty appear to be much more widespread than it is now with poor people living in more densely populated inner cities.

    • Miles Bader

      I think the opposite is true though — area doesn’t focus attention, intensity does. Moreover, cities are natural focal points for attention, because they are important for many other reasons. So poverty in cities will be more noticeable, even if the same amount exists outside them.

        • Nathanael

          You both have interesting points. 🙂 I tend to agree with Miles. But there’s a secondary effect, which is that if people get poor *enough*, they become homeless, and at *that* point they have *strong* incentives to move back into the city, because for most people rural homelessness is truly awful.

          Of course the empty houses in the suburbs may attract squatters and prevent this particular scenario. Probably will, actually.

  7. JLS

    “This could lead to a French-style geography in which the rich live in central cities and the poor outside them.”
    I disagree i’m french and for almost all city Toulouse, Grenoble, Lyon, Bordeaux the rich are living in the suburbs. And in Paris it’s the same Le Vesinet, Neuilly (West suburbs) are richer than the city of Paris.
    It’s true that many poor are living in the suburbs too. But in france the divide Suburb/downton is irrelevant.
    Each town over 3500 inhabitants should have 20% housing projects even if rich town prefers to pay a fine than having housing project.

    • Alon Levy

      In Paris the west suburbs are rich, but so is the city. In the part of France I’m mildly familiar with, around Nice, the central areas of Nice are okay, Monaco is very rich, and the bedroom communities have low-income projects.

    • John

      20% of French people live in housing projects? That sounds horrible. I hope French housing projects are better than their American counterparts.

      • Alon Levy

        In Singapore it’s 85%. And Singapore’s HDB projects are better than the American projects in social status (if everyone lives in one, there’s no stigma), but they’re the same towers-in-a-park hell, and are built to lower standards, for example elevators sometimes stop only on every other floor.

        • Joseph E

          “[they] are built to lower standards, for example elevators sometimes stop only on every other floor.”

          That doesn’t sound like a lower standard, unless they are really saving money on elevator doors, but a way to make elevators faster. It’s the same (faulty) logic as skip-stop metro service. It’s faster for people on the upper floors, but worse for half of the rest.

          Or maybe they are trying to encourage exercise? 🙂

          • Alon Levy

            It’s a money-saving exercise. The newer, fancier projects are built with elevators stopping on every floor.

            It probably doesn’t really save time. The request-a-stop nature of elevators (especially in residential buildings, which don’t have the same peak demand of office buildings) is such that stopping every other floor means the elevator will make approximately the same number of stops. It’s not like skip-stop, which is a silly practice but does save a few minutes.

  8. jim harper

    I remember visiting an unfamiliar neighborhood on the edge of a large western sunbelt city, in 1997. The building stock was only about 20 years old, but it was cheaper type buildings, tract houses, clearly a slum, complete with drug addicts on the streets. It was a pretty bad one, because as a new neighborhood it lacked the social cohesion that sometimes adheres to an older neighborhood that falls on bad times. Then I went around the corner and saw the neighborhood high school. I suddenly realized that I had had a summer job as a student moving furniture into that rather elaborate school 25 years earlier. Then it was in the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by cotton fields, a prime example of urban sprawl. It had gone from that to a completely built up middle class neighborhood to a slum in about 20 years. I was horrified. Why, or rather how did that happen?

    • Nathanael

      Transportation costs. All by themselves.

      The entire “middle class suburban” lifestyle was fueled by cheap oil.

      • Nathanael

        I have to be fair, though; the collapse of the “middle class suburban” lifestyle was accelerated by the accelerated destruction of the middle class from the 1980s onward, due to deregulation of big monopolies, the financialization of the economy, union-busting, cutting taxes on the richest 0.1% while raising fees for everyone else, etc. etc.

        The “middle class suburb” would have collapsed quite slowly otherwise, but with the middle class squeezed, it collapsed fast. Incidentally this is also why I expect to see the city cores reserved for the properly rich — there isn’t going to be much of a middle class left unless a very different (much more socialist) government gets into power.

  9. JLS

    “20% of French people live in housing projects?”
    20 % is the target,
    Most of city don’t want to reach this target, but some city have 60% or more of housing projects.
    There is nothing bad about housing projects.

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  11. Andrew

    Toronto like many other cities seems to have a donut shaped distribution of poverty. The downtown core has heavily gentrified in the last ten years, and the neighbourhoods north of downtown near Yonge Street have always been wealthy, but a lot of the older post war suburbs (Scarborough, northern Etobicoke, western North York and some parts of Mississauga) have become poorer over time and are full of low income housing projects. Beyond there are higher income suburbs ranging from middle class (Brampton, Pickering, Burlington, Newmarket) to upper middle class/wealthy (Markham, Richmond Hill, Oakville, the southern part of Mississauga). On the other hand, the furthest parts of the GTA (Hamilton, Oshawa) are quite poor but these were historically independent cities which have merged with the Toronto area, and both face declining manufacturing industries.

  12. Daniel

    The age of the housing stock and infrastructure is just as important as the location of the neighborhood. The poor live in older homes, just like they drive older cars, because these goods depreciate in value over time. The exception seems to arise when homes become old enough to need a thorough renovation (or demolition and new construction). This is why gentrification comes as such a shock, because neighborhoods go from having the oldest and cheapest homes to having the “newest” ones very quickly.

    The same process happens with every other market, such as when the rich sell their 3-year old cars to the next class below them and buy new ones. The trickle-down force is much more disruptive in housing, because it’s harder to move, communities form roots, and people grow emotionally attached to place.

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