When poverty commutes

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After 18 months of unemployment that has refused to budge below 9.4 percent (and with a real unemployment rate running consistently about 17 percent), it will be no shock to learn that poverty is on the rise in the United States. The latest data from the Census Bureau reports that about 44 million Americans—one in seven-—are currently struggling at the U.S. poverty line, currently $22,050 for a family of four. Twenty-one percent of all U.S. children are growing up poor. That's up from 16 percent just ten years ago and it's the highest measure of poverty in the U.S. in more than 50 years.

But what may come as a surprise is learning where poverty is happening. The Brookings Institution reports that more and more U.S. poverty is migrating to the nation's suburbs. In fact, though concentrations of poverty remain highest in U.S. urban communities, in absolute numbers there are now more poor citizens living in suburbs. The migration of U.S. poverty to urban collar counties follows a global trend of wealth concentrating in urban areas while poverty drifts off into commuter land. Why that is a significant problem in the United States has most to do with the way we have over decades organized ourselves.

America's poverty infrastructure tilts heavily in favor of its cities. Homeless shelters, food banks, social services of all sorts can be found in the nation's urban centers, these critical safety valves on the worst effects of poverty simply cannot be found in the burbs and with states and local governments increasingly hard-pressed to provide the basics in the Great Recession's era of declining property taxes, it is not likely that such agencies are going to be relocated in suburbs any time soon. Are the poor likely to "commute" to social services when just getting through the day is challenge enough? Will critical services and interventions for our poor children simply go undelivered? How will the nature of life in the burbs be altered by these changing demographics? The next decade or so will answer these questions, for good or ill. I'll be exploring this issue further in a future Margin Notes column. (If you find the issue of interest, you might want to mosey your mouse over to that big green Subscribe Now button. I'm just saying . . . )