Poverty is America’s biggest problem right now. If the middle class feels poor, then those living in poverty feel even poorer. We don’t really have an education problem. We have a poverty problem. We don’t really have an infrastructure problem. We have a poverty problem. We don’t have a housing problem. We don’t have a crime problem, we have an opportunity gap, which is a poverty problem. Every problem America has right now could be solved if there was more money and if the problems were approached by creative, caring grassroots people.
In this sense Bernie Sanders is right. Money no longer flows through our economy. The wealthy people at the top of the economy are hoarding all the money. If the world were a great big glass chamber with money blowing around to be caught and pocketed, most of us are not even in the chamber. We do need to change our tax laws and finance laws and close loopholes until the rush of money to the top 1% slows and more of America’s money circulates through the middle class and lifts up the poorest Americans.
Since the wealthiest Americans show little inclination to make money flow more equally through our society the problems being created by poverty are increasingly making themselves felt by all of us who live anywhere in America. This cannot be perceived as a problems of just our inner cities. We cannot just absent ourselves from our downtown areas until our cities become off limits to all but the most desperate. What happens in one sector of our society eventually affects all of our society.
The Brookings Institute has been looking at our cities in some detail recently. They have concluded what we already knew about stubborn pockets of poverty and who lives in those blighted pockets. Now Brookings is going beyond city centers to look at metro areas around cities and what they are finding should not lead us to feel complacent in our distant suburbs. Our cities may have felt the sting of tight money first, but the pinch is spreading outward and will continue to spread into more affluent middle class neighborhoods if we do not face our challenges now.
Below, in the author’s words, is a summary of the key points of the Brookings Institute study on metro areas around cities. You can read the entire article and see the graphs (which are too large to reproduce here) at
The economically turbulent 2000s have redrawn America’s geography of poverty in more ways than one. After two downturns and subsequent recoveries that failed to reach down the economic ladder, the number of people living below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012) remains stubbornly stuck at record levels. Today, more of those residents live in suburbs than in big cities or rural communities, a significant shift compared to 2000, when the urban poor still outnumbered suburban residents living in poverty.1
But as poverty has spread, it has not done so evenly. Instead, it has also become more clustered and concentrated in distressed and high-poverty neighborhoods, eroding the brief progress made against concentrated poverty during the late 1990s.
The challenges of poor neighborhoods—including worse health outcomes, higher crime rates, failing schools, and fewer job opportunities—make it that much harder for individuals and families to escape poverty and often perpetuate and entrench poverty across generations.2 These factors affect not only the residents and communities touched by concentrated disadvantage, but also the regions they inhabit and the ability of those metro areas to grow in inclusive and sustainable ways.
- Between 2000 and 2008-2012, the number of people living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 5 million.
The nation’s 100 largest metro areas are home to 70 percent of all distressed census tracts, along with similar proportions of the total population and poor residents living in such neighborhoods. That’s not surprising, considering that, historically, concentrated poverty has been a largely urban phenomenon. However, larger shifts in the geography of poverty within these metro areas during the 2000s have also made concentrated poverty an increasingly regional challenge.
- The suburban poor accounted for a growing share of residents living in concentrated poverty in the 2000s.
The concentrated poverty rate remains highest in big cities, where almost one in four poor residents (23 percent) lived in a distressed neighborhood in 2008-2012, compared to 6.3 percent in suburbs. However, suburban communities experienced the fastest pace of growth in the number of poor residents living in concentrated poverty over this time period.
III. Suburbs in the Sun Belt experienced some of the steepest increases in concentrated disadvantage.
Almost every major metro area saw the number of suburban poor living in high-poverty or distressed neighborhoods grow during the 2000s.
- Demographic differences between lower-poverty and higher-poverty suburban neighborhoods narrowed during the 2000s.
Our inner city schools will not magically start performing great educational feats if they are not given some really substantial help. We need to pour all the resources we can spare, and even resources we don’t think we can spare, and all the best educational practices into these schools so we can move these children (and their families) up and out of poverty.
We cannot just turn our backs on this struggle for the minds and hearts of inner city children. If we do it will come back to haunt us. It has already chased us off of what used to be some pretty valuable real estate. It has taken whole neighborhoods and turned them into places in our own cities that we will no longer travel to or through. These children are people, and their lives are being wasted. No matter how poor the middle class is feeling if the richest among us will not help, then we must forgo some of our own comforts for a while and tackle this blight which we have allowed to persist for too long. We are not doing enough for these schools and these children. We need to start with this – priority number one.
Along with our schools, our low performing schools, we need to contribute extra dollars from our own pockets, dollars that stay local and can be used when crumbling infrastructure needs attention. Flint, Michigan has, I hope, taught us some valuable lessons. Old water conduits and old sewers are under all the cities in America and can require attention at any time. We need a citizen’s emergency fund that is not available to local governments for any other need than a pressing infrastructure need.
We cannot wait for rich folks to stop being greedy. We cannot wall off or write off the poorest neighborhoods and forget about them. If we do, America will rot from the inside out.
By Nancy Brisson