The Suburban Poor

The Atlantic this morning discussed the rise of suburban poverty.
The suburbs have offered more affordable housing options for low-income populations in recent years– largely due to higher income citizens moving back into rehabilitated downtowns and driving up housing prices.
The concentration of poverty in suburban areas brings a host of unique problems. The suburbs lack the infrastructure and transportation systems to help people access jobs.  Jobs available in the suburbs don’t keep up with the cost of living for low-income, low-educated residents.  And social services available in urban areas have not yet expanded into the suburbs.
The population shift, itself, is ironic and problematic.   After all, the suburbs were originally a destination for well-to-do white middle classes escaping the decay of urban life in the mid-twentieth century.  These new residents followed the migration of many  big manufacturing centers into the peripheries of northern cities. In the suburbs, jobs were plentiful, prosperity bloomed, etc.
In the urban city centers, however, jobs dried up.  And due to legally-sanctioned neighborhood segregation, recently-migrated poorer black communities became trapped in areas that afforded no real economic opportunity.
Now that we are seeing the reverse trend–high-income populations moving back into the city, while poorer populations are priced out– the labor market continues to not match up.  Sure, there are still big office parks in the suburbs, and with them accompanying jobs for lower-educated populations (service, cleaning, food, etc.), but, as The Atlantic article mentions, transportation to these employment opportunities is completely lacking and wages for these jobs often do not approach the cost of suburban life.
The practical concerns of this trend–transportation, access to social services, proper political representation– are immediate and scary.  But to take a step back, I want to raise some important questions about urban and regional planning.  Namely, how do we get ahead of demographic shifts that are the result of the housing market and cost-of-living?  How do we start planning for economic opportunity rather than responding to the lack of it?  How do we match the labor market to education to economic need?
Of course, this is all easier said than done.  But we can’t afford to keep reacting to population changes, instead of planning for how they will look.


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