Suburbia’s Other Underbelly

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Zina Saunders /

Angst-ridden films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road depict suburbia as an incubator of emptiness, portraying the “poverty” of middle-class comfort and sameness. But Governing (May 2010) reports that as of 2008 the suburbs of the nation’s largest metro areas were home to “1.5 million more poor residents than the cities themselves,” suggesting that modern-day suburban anxiety has little to do with Hollywood’s back-lot realism.

The shift to suburban poverty has to do partly with demographics. More people than ever live in the suburbs, leading to a more diverse collection of residents, some rich, some poor, and the rest struggling to stay in the middle. Recession and foreclosures also play a role, as both home ownership and job stability have become tenuous propositions for those who seek out family­-friendly suburban enclaves. Finally, in today’s economy, middle-class comfort is simply less attainable than it used to be. One researcher suggests that “75 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near-poverty–earning 150 percent of the federal poverty income level–in their lifetimes.”

What’s more, the safety net, another cherished middle-class truism, isn’t catching as many poor residents as need assistance, especially since the social service sector hasn’t colonized suburbia as it has America’s cities. And even where programs like food banks exist, suburban residents don’t know that their own communities would benefit from food donations, Elizabeth Donovan, who works at the Northern Illinois Food Bank serving counties outside Chicago, tells Governing.

Poverty in the underserved ‘burbs can also be particularly devastating to recent immigrants who are migrating to the suburbs, where language barriers are even more pronounced, even in the social service sector. Nury Marquez, executive director of the Hispanic Committee of Virginia, which serves the suburbs of Washington, D.C., says this growing population “[doesn’t] understand how to find the services they need.”

Governing emphasizes that geography is the single greatest obstacle for those assisting the suburban poor. In urban settings, underprivileged residents tend to be concentrated by neighborhood. But in the suburbs the poor live farther apart from one another, and from the help and the jobs that might relieve economic crash and burn.

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