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Center for Community Planning and Development


In the United States today, contrary to popular belief, living in the suburbs is not synonymous with living the American dream. An unprecedented number of people in the suburbs are living on household incomes of less than $20,000, many on much less. Increasingly, individuals and their families need to rely on services and public benefits to meet their basic needs (Kneebone & Berube, 2013).

Over the past 30 years, poverty in the suburbs has grown due to multiple factors, including job decentralization, shifts in the location of affordable and subsidized housing, and the relocation to the suburbs of lower income immigrants and minorities (Covington, Freeman, & Stoll, 2011; Frey, 2011a). The rate of growth in suburban poverty has been particularly high in the past decade, outpacing growth in both urban and rural areas. During the Great Recession (2007-2009), high rates of unemployment and underemployment and the home foreclosure crisis brought the number of people living in poverty in the suburbs to an all-time high. Today, suburban areas are home to about 40 percent of all poor people in the country, an increase from 25 percent in 1980. Furthermore, in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, more people are living in poverty in the suburbs than in urban areas (Frey, 2011b). Suburbs are now facing a range of challenges traditionally associated with cities, such as high rates of unemployment and underemployment, lower educational attainment, food insecurity, and lack of access to health care. The increase in the suburban poverty rate is straining social service providers and local governments at a time when resources are shrinking (Allard & Roth, 2010).

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) seeks to better understand poverty and service delivery in suburban America, including how the dynamics of suburban poverty may differ from those in rural and urban communities and whether service models may need to be tailored to meet these differences. To that end, ASPE commissioned this framing paper to review and synthesize existing research, analyze the characteristics and service needs of those living in poverty in the suburbs, and identify information and research needed to more fully understand and guide efforts to address suburban poverty.

To prepare this review, we used three types of information sources: existing literature, both published and unpublished; a select number of key informant interviews; and two sources of extant U.S. Census Bureau household survey data: the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS), which provides an annual count of the number of people living below 100 percent of the federal poverty level from 1959 to 2011, and the 2009-2011 American Community Survey (ACS) Weighted 3-Year Restricted-Use Files, a household survey of a nationally representative sample of individuals. These data provide information about all suburbs, including but not limited to, the 100 largest metropolitan areas (see Appendix 1).

This paper will serve to frame the discussion during the Poverty and Service Delivery in Suburban America Roundtable, to be convened in 2014. The roundtable will bring together researchers, policy

5 experts, practitioners, and federal staff to discuss the issues raised in this paper and gaps in the research, formulate new research questions, consider the implications of the research for service delivery and public benefits, and assess opportunities for HHS and broader federal engagement.