By Maria Saporta
Metro Atlanta’s profile is changing with a dramatic growth of poverty in the suburbs.
Several recent studies point to reality challenging the perception that the poor are concentrated in the central city while the middle-income and higher-income populations are living in the suburbs.
“In Atlanta, the poor population in the city held stead between 2000 and 2010 whilethe poor population in the suburbs grew by 122 percent — more than doubling over the course of the decade,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, who was in Atlanta presenting her findings.
By comparison, among the nation’s 95 largest metro areas, the poor population in the suburbs grew by 53 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the poor population in cities grew by 23 percent, Kneebone added.
The last decade has been tough for the United States as per capita income has declined.
Kneebone said that in 2000, the country had 81 million people living at or near the poverty line. In 2010, that number had grown to 104 million people.
Yet the growth of poverty in metro Atlanta’s suburbs is outpacing that in other areas.
The Atlanta Regional Commission’s upcoming “Regional Snapshot” shows that among the 20 most populous metro areas in the county, Atlanta had the highest percentage increase in suburban poverty.
Between 2000 and 2010, poverty increased 5.9 percent in the suburbs compared to 1.7 percent in the city. Although suburban poverty rates are still lower than inside the urban core, “poverty rates rose at three times the rate in the first-ring suburbs when compared to the urban core,” according to the Regional Snapshot.
“People used to feel safe by getting into their cars and going to a suburban place and getting away from it all,” said Milton Little, president of the United Way for Greater Atlanta. “Now it’s coming to them. The America of 2013 is just a very different place than the America of decades ago.”
Unfortunately, most of the nation’s public policy programs and social services have been designed to serve the poor living in central cities. Suburbs often do not have the services, such as reliable public transit, that exist in more urban areas.
“Suburban poverty brings added challenges,” said Kneebone, who is co-authoring a book: “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America” that is scheduled to be released in May. In addition to a lack of transportation options, there are big gaps in social services available in suburban communities.
There also are the ongoing issues of how to make sure the poor have access to job opportunities and decent schools so that their situations can improve.
“It’s not just about people moving to the suburbs,” Kneebone said. “It’s also people living in the suburbs slipping down the economic ladder. During the Great Recession, the unemployment population doubled in the suburbs.”
Lesley Grady, senior vice president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, summed it up this way. “Poverty ain’t a good thing anywhere,” she said during a panel discussion on suburban poverty that United Way convened after Kneebone’s presentation.
For charitable organizations and government agencies, providing services to the poor living in the suburbs adds another complexity to their task during a period of declining resources.
But United Way’s Little said the community has little choice but to respond to the challenge.
“We can’t do it in isolation,” Little said. “Part of the work we want to do is to make place irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter you live.”
A growth in suburban poverty is a double-edge sword.
On the one hand, it has been proven that having concentrations of poverty in one geographic area unfortunately can trap people into generational poverty through depressed communities, weak schools and few positive role models.
Several cities, including Atlanta, have focused their efforts in creating mixed-income communities where the poor will have greater opportunities to improve their place in the world.
But on the other hand, dispersing the poor all corners of our region make it that much harder to provide services, whether it be transit, social support and job opportunities.
Local and state governments, already strapped for resources, are having to develop new programs to serve their growing poor populations.
At the same time, the needs of the poor living in the central city have not gone away. If there ever were a time to have greater cooperation between urban and suburban cities and counties, it is now.
As Kneebone said: “Poverty in cities has not gone away, but now suburbs are struggling along side them.”