Atlanta No. 4 for suburban poverty growth

Forget your preconceptions: 87 percent of metro Atlanta’s poor people are suburbanites

Time to rethink your stereotypes. For decades the term “inner city” has been shorthand for “poor.” But, as a study released by the Brookings Institution yesterday reveals, poverty is growing faster in U.S. suburbs than in cities, and Atlanta has the dubious distinction of being a trendsetter.

In Atlanta, there have been more poor people in the suburbs than the city for decades. This reflects the region’s overall population patterns; since the city proper represents less than a tenth of the metro area’s population, it’s logical more poor people live in the ’burbs—there are just more people there, period.

But, according to Brookings researcher Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, the rate of poverty in Atlanta’s suburbs has escalated since 2000. Back in the 1970s, the number of poor in the city and suburbs was about equal. While the city figure has held steady for the past five decades, the number of suburban poor soared over the past decade as the chart above shows. By 2010, 87 percent of metro Atlanta’s poor people lived in suburbs.

Atlanta was one of ten metro areas where suburban poverty grew the most between 2000 and 2010. How we stack up:

Cape Coral, Florida
Greensboro, N.C.
Colorado Springs
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Dayton, Ohio
Youngstown, Ohio
Salt Lake City

Like any issue in Atlanta, this one quickly becomes about transit. It’s exceptionally hard to be poor in our suburbs because of the challenges getting help or getting to work. Less than half of Atlanta’s suburban poor have access to transit, and what does exist is limited: On average, a poor person in the suburbs can only reach 18 percent of Atlanta’s jobs. What’s worse, those commutes can take up to ninety minutes each way, noted Kneebone, whom I spoke with earlier this year after she visited Atlanta to preview the study’s findings. “How you connect people to opportunities that help them work their way out of poverty?” she said. Two-thirds of jobs in metro Atlanta are located ten miles from Downtown.

A few other key findings:

79 percent of Atlantans who get housing vouchers live in the suburbs. Atlanta’s replaced massive housing projects with mixed-income developments and relocated poor residents to the suburbs in the process. Whether you’re looking to get the most for a housing voucher or your mortgage budget, it’s cheaper to live in the suburbs, which is where 85 percent of metro Atlanta’s affordable housing exists. “Relying on vouchers is a general trend,” said Kneebone. “Atlanta was the number-one showing that shift.”

Our suburban social services agencies are poor, too. Suburban agencies here get just $1.73 in grants per poor person annually compared to the $65.98 cleared by their city counterparts. “Programs have been targeted at urban or rural areas; when the war on poverty began that’s where poverty was concentrated,” noted Kneebone. It can be harder to help suburbanites because of deep-seated stereotypes about poverty and poor people. “If you have a lagging perception of where poverty is, a lagging perception of who the poor are, you will be less effective in coming up with services,” says Kneebone. Better-off suburbanites don’t realize the needs in their own neighborhoods.

There are more poor kids in suburban school systems. Over the past five years, there’s been a 25 percent increase—or 80,000 additional poor suburban students.

The suburban poor are more likely to be native-born than immigrants. Again, this is where perception (or political rhetoric) and reality don’t align. Although Atlanta’s seen an increase in suburban-dwelling immigrants—“increasingly immigrant gateways emerge in suburban communities; bypassing cities”—suburban poverty here has increased most dramatically among “native-born residents,” said Kneebone.