Suburban Poverty Presents Challenge for Transportation

We may have overlooked a key demographic shift as we stumbled into the 21st century. At some point in the prior decade, poverty in the suburbs began to grow at a faster rate than poverty in central cities. The number of suburban poor grew by 64 percent between 2000 and 2011; that’s more than double the rate for cities. This new, dispersed poverty offers some fresh challenges for policy makers. Being away from the bustle of the city was always the point of suburban living but this creates a unique transportation barrier as the poor are now  farther away from their jobs and traditional programs which serve them.

Brookings Institution scholars Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube published a book last week entitled Confronting Suburban Poverty in America which tracks this trend and presents some policy prescriptions. They report that in 2011, there were 16 million impoverished individuals living in suburbs compared to 13 million of their urban counterparts. The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer places these numbers into context for the Wonk Blog:

In 2012, there were an estimated 16.4 million poor people living in the suburbs, compared with 13.4 million in the cities. Granted, it’s worth putting this in context. There are three times as many total people living in America’s suburbs, so the overall rate of suburban poverty is still much, much lower. But the recent rapid uptick is striking.

This uptick itself may be interesting but, in a way, geographically concentrated poverty had its upsides. This is as much a land use conundrum as a poverty puzzle. When poverty is concentrated in an urban environment, service delivery is much easier to organize and combine. Suburban land use is purposefully sparse and designed for automobile use; the urban core is dense and often walkable. Catering a job training program to either will present unique challenges. Chief among these hurdles is transportation. Getting services to the poor or getting the poor to services just became more difficult than ever before.

Suburbs require that their residents either take transit or acquire an automobile. Riding transit (generally buses) requires that the poor walk long distances to reach public transit stops along busy, dangerous arterial roads—and that’s if their jobs can be reached by transit. A study of Pittsburgh found that while 80.1 percent of the city's low-income suburbanites had transit access, just 16.9 percent of the metro-area’s jobs could be accessed within 90 minutes via transit.  The other option requires the resident to purchase and pay for upkeep, gas, insurance and taxes on an automobile.  The suburban poor, on average, end up spending a higher percentage of their income on transportation than their urban counterparts.

Kneebone and Berube describe the unique challenges the suburban poor face regarding transportation in a Pittsburgh suburb:

“The growing low-income population in Penn Hills faces significant challenges around access to transportation. Some parts of the community are served by just one bus line that comes only a few times in the morning (into the city) and a few times in the late afternoon to early evening (back out of the city). Budget cuts at the Allegheny County Port Authority have left many of Penn Hills’s neighborhoods and residents with limited public transit options, including none on the weekends. Given that one in ten households lacks access to a vehicle, these cuts have left many residents struggling to gain and maintain employment, particularly those working late shifts in the city or trying to get to jobs in neighboring suburbs. Residents must increasingly depend on family members, friends, or neighbors with cars to help them shop for groceries (the closest store is more than two miles from some poor neighborhoods) or get to a doctor’s appointment, stressing already fragile relationships. A trip to get Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits can turn into an all-day affair.”

But some believe some aspects of suburban poverty compared to urban poverty may not be all bad. The prospect of better schools and more diverse socioeconomic neighborhoods in the suburbs may lead to opportunities for upward mobility and, if poverty has a cyclical element, perhaps a change of place was in order. Public housing policy in the late 20th century was characterized by a reduction in density.  After disastrous social experiments of the Pruitt-Igoe era where the poor were housed together in dense “vertical neighborhoods,” i.e., high-rise projects, social scientists and policy makers called for moving the poor to lower density and mixed-income developments through new public housing programs or various forms of rental assistance. This was an important shift from the stack-and-pack era of stigma and neglect but public service provision hasn’t kept up with the geographic shift.

This isn’t just a transportation problem. The already labyrinthine poverty apparatus was always most effective when services were coordinated. These programs were often designed for urban poverty and service coordination is often more difficult across jurisdictional boundaries. However, until social services catch up with the new shape of poverty, it is crucial that public transit departments continue to have the support they require and the planning tools they need to reach the car-less in suburbia.

Kneebone and Berube call for robust state-level policy, including a focus on transportation, as part of a broad right-sizing of anti-poverty policy. Be it adding new routes, restoring old ones or retrofitting existing bus routes to Bus Rapid Transit, public transit’s role in connecting workers and jobs could be indispensable. Transportation will not cure suburban poverty alone. The commute to traditional service distribution centers is too long to be efficient. However, given the unique challenges ahead, transit funding and flexibility may be essential for the success of other initiatives.