Scholars Exchange: Governing the New Geography of Poverty

Editor’s Note: This post contains a three-part exchange starting with a piece by Margaret Weir and Elizabeth Mattiuzzi about their recent UAR article, “Governing the New Geography of Poverty in Metropolitan America,” a commentary from Elizabeth Kneebone, and a response from Weir and Mattiuzzi.

Governing the New Geography of Poverty in Metropolitan America

By Margaret Weir (Brown University) and Elizabeth Mattiuzzi (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)

When Michael Brown’s death at the hands of local police thrust Ferguson, Missouri into national headlines in 2014, it also drew attention to something that seemed new: poverty in American suburbs. In the wake of Ferguson, a rash of news articles described economically distressed suburbs that looked nothing like the mid-century “Ozzie and Harriet” havens of the White middle class. Indeed, research documenting the growth of suburban poverty showed that by the mid-2000s the majority of the poor in big metropolitan areas lived in suburbs. Even though the historic central cities suffered from higher rates of poverty, suburbs contained greater numbers of poor residents.

We are learning more about the economic and demographic features of suburban poverty, but few researchers have delved into the politics and governance of suburban poverty. Our study contributes to understanding the new geography of poverty by showing how low-income residents fit into the governmental patchwork that defines metropolitan America. We show that the label “suburb” encompasses a wide variety of places overseen by governments with very different resources and capabilities. Existing research on suburban poverty tends to be based on census tracts rather than political boundaries. We define “suburbs” as cities and unincorporated areas outside of census-defined principal cities and places in metropolitan areas.

Relying on census data for the five largest metropolitan areas in each of five census-designated regions of the country (25 metros total) from 1990 to 2012-2016, we show how the distribution of poor people across jurisdiction types, and their concentration in particular jurisdictions or places, has changed over time. We show that in the older metros of the Northeast and Midwest, suburban poverty grew in smaller cities, while it expanded in unincorporated areas in the South and in larger suburban cities in the West.

The governance of suburban poverty matters. In contrast to governments in historic central cities, suburban localities may have little experience and few institutions to address the needs of their low-income populations. Moreover, suburban local governments vary greatly in size and in the incomes of their residents. Such differences have enormous impact on their ability to fund basic public infrastructure, such as police, fire, roads, transportation, and public libraries.  Size also affects their likelihood of attracting federal funds, since key block grants go directly to localities with a population over 50,000 but smaller places must compete to win such grants from their county.

Small jurisdictions with high rates of poverty bear a special burden. Policymakers and scholars have long thought of the dispersion of poor populations as a net positive, with jobs, good schools, and better housing often located in the suburbs. But differences in how the poor are distributed across suburban cities affects whether this shift represents a move to opportunity or simply a new concentration of poverty in particular suburban jurisdictions. Our data show that there are more small high poverty suburban localities in the Frostbelt than in the Sunbelt: 23 percent of the poor in Frostbelt suburban cities lived in high poverty cities compared to 7 percent in the Sunbelt. In Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, a large share (52 percent, 41 percent, 37 percent, and 36 percent, respectively) of the poor in suburban cities lived in small high poverty cities.

The growth of small high poverty jurisdictions represents an alarming trend. These governments typically possess weak fiscal capacity and, even with high tax rates, find it difficult to provide even basic services. Moreover, these jurisdictions are especially vulnerable to decline in regions with slow growth. For example, Chicago’s high poverty small jurisdictions experienced a 14 percent population drop between 1990 to 2012-2016; in Detroit the decline was 20 percent.

The concentration of poverty in small suburban localities has a racial component. In the Frostbelt, Blacks and Latinos were overrepresented in the small high poverty cities. For example, Midwestern small high poverty cities were 34 percent African American, although Blacks comprised only 12 percent of the population of all small cities in the Midwest in 2012-2016. In the Sunbelt, the few large high poverty suburban cities had disproportionately large minority populations. Los Angeles’s large high poverty suburban cities were 78 percent Latino, although Latinos accounted for only 43 percent among all large suburban cities in 2012-2016.  Despite this overrepresentation of minority populations among large high poverty suburban cities in the Sunbelt, their larger size may enable them to provide better opportunities than the small high poverty jurisdictions in the Frostbelt.

In the South, the new geography of suburban poverty has taken a different form, growing disproportionately in unincorporated areas. The Atlanta and Tampa metros had the highest shares of the poor population (56 percent each) living in unincorporated areas. Because they lack local governments, these areas rely on counties for their services. Yet, many counties are ill-equipped to address the needs of the poor and unincorporated pockets of poverty may remain invisible to county leaders, especially if they are spread out over a large territory. For example, in Harris County, home to the city of Houston, the unincorporated population has grown to 1.8 million, approaching the 2.2 million in the city of Houston. Poverty in unincorporated Harris County has exceeded population growth: in 1990, 8 percent of residents were poor; by 2016 the percentage had jumped to 13 percent. Yet the state restricts the county’s revenue source to the property tax and sharply limits how much the property tax it can raise.

Documenting the shifting distribution of the poor across local governments and assessing the characteristics of those jurisdictions provides insights into the capacities of the local public sector to assist low-income residents. The suburban poor in high poverty jurisdictions and in unincorporated areas face special challenges. Yet the very broad range of jurisdictions that now house low-income populations may contribute to the invisibility of the poor, increasing the risk that metropolitan poverty can be pushed “out of sight, out of mind.”

Read the UAR article here.


Commentary by Elizabeth Kneebone (UC Berkeley)

In their paper, Elizabeth Mattiuzzi and Margaret Weir explore how the suburbanization of poverty has unfolded across the governmental patchwork that makes up metropolitan American, by analyzing poverty trends in the cities and unincorporated areas of 25 major metropolitan areas between 1990 and 2012-2016.

I am so appreciative of the opportunity to respond to this new analysis because it directly engages with the fact that—despite the perceptions of affluence and homogeneity that American suburbia typically evokes—“the suburbs” encompass a range of places (incorporated and not) with different resources, capacity, and political bents. Together, those factors shape the experience of poverty, which can vary markedly from one jurisdiction to the next. Mattiuzzi and Weir’s analysis offers important insights into the ways in which the governance landscape of the suburbs can influence where the “new geography of poverty” reflects “a move to opportunity or a new kind of exclusion.”

Specifically, the authors bring a governance-oriented lens to intra-metropolitan shifts in the poor population through their jurisdictional typology, which groups places by population size and incorporation status. They also develop a measure to identify which jurisdictions are “high poverty” relative to the other jurisdictions in the same metro area, which they refer to as a measure of concentrated poverty (more on that terminology below). Their categorizations help parse out what kinds of suburban communities have been affected by increases in poverty since 1990, and underscore the broad geographic reach of these trends. Growing poverty touched suburbs across their typology categories—large and small, incorporated and not. But the types of places experiencing the most acute increases varied depending on the part of the country under consideration. These variations not only reflect the differing histories of local land use and development patterns across the country, but also suggest the kinds of challenges (and opportunities) that can stem from the underlying governance landscape.

For instance, Midwestern and Northeastern metro areas, where the legacy of redlining and exclusionary land use practices remains apparent in persistent patterns of segregation, tend to be much more jurisdictionally fragmented and have many more small jurisdictions (fewer than 50,000 people) than metro areas in other parts of the country. The authors find that small secondary cities in the Midwest and Northeast absorbed a larger share of the growth in suburban poverty, contained higher average shares of their metro area’s poor population than their counterparts elsewhere, and were more likely to cross the authors’ high-poverty threshold. In these metros, jurisdictional fragmentation compounds the challenges of trying to address rising poverty, given that these small, high-poverty jurisdictions “often possess weak fiscal capacity and, even with high taxes, find it difficult to provide even basic services.”

In contrast, their typology reveals that metro areas in the South are much more likely to grapple with governance challenges related to the prevalence of unincorporated areas (at least for now). Southern metro areas had a higher share of their poor populations living in unincorporated areas than in principal cities or in secondary cities. Compared to other parts of the country, the metropolitan poor in the South were also more likely to cluster in high-poverty unincorporated areas. Just as in small, high-poverty jurisdictions in the Midwest and Northwest, unincorporated areas may struggle with attracting the resources and capacity needed to match the level of need in their communities. Poverty can also feel more “out of sight out of mind” in such places.

Yet another (and perhaps more hopeful?) pattern emerged in the West, where larger jurisdictions—secondary cities with population over 50,000—accounted for both the largest share of metropolitan poor among jurisdiction types and the biggest increases in poverty rates between 1990 and 2012-16. Few of these larger jurisdictions crossed the high-poverty threshold, so these metro areas tended to see fewer poor residents clustered in high-poverty places. And for larger Western jurisdictions that did cross that high-poverty threshold, they were populous enough to qualify for federal block grants. The authors posit that such jurisdictions may be better equipped to marshal needed resources.

The insights that emerge from the authors’ analytical approach underscore the complexity of effectively responding to the new geography of poverty—a complexity that stems in no small part from the varied, and often fragmented, governance landscape that makes up American suburbia. But the observations about the larger Western jurisdictions, in particular, also suggest to me the importance of differentiating between the authors’ measure of poverty concentration at the jurisdictional level and traditional measures of concentrated poverty, which tend to focus on the neighborhood scale.

The concentrated poverty literature typically relies on a fixed poverty rate “threshold” to identify areas of high poverty. Evidence suggests that the 20 percent and 40 percent thresholds often used in the literature are meaningful in identifying the level at which the negative neighborhood effects associated with the concentration of poverty are observed. (Of course, an area that falls just below the threshold is not likely to be significantly different than one that just meets it, a specification issue with any threshold-based measure, regardless of how the threshold is set.)  Instead, in this article, the authors use a relative threshold that is benchmarked to the average poverty rate of jurisdictions in each metro area in each year—a threshold that, while informed by the 20 percent threshold, fluctuates across metro areas and over time by design. As such, the measure developed by the authors seems more oriented to capturing relative shifts in the inter-metro balance of poverty, which is an important but distinct concept from identifying the threshold effects associated with concentrated poverty.

One benefit in differentiating between the two concepts (besides terminological clarity) is the opportunity to intersect the two. Overlaying the jurisdictional typology with a tract-level analysis would merge the two concepts and add another layer of evidence on what types of jurisdictions may be struggling with concentrated disadvantage. Places that might appear to avoid concentrating poverty at the jurisdictional level based on the inter-metro relative benchmark may read differently when merged with a neighborhood-level concentrated poverty analysis. For instance, in the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metro area, neither Redlands nor Indio meets the authors’ jurisdictional high-poverty threshold, yet both are home to more than one neighborhood with poverty rates over 20 percent. Future research that adds that next geographic layer to the jurisdictional perspective could help surface places that may be seeing emerging patterns of exclusion and segregation before they register in citywide data. Especially for larger, more-resourced jurisdictions, such information could prime places for earlier interventions.

I’d add that future research question to the other important areas for further analysis laid out by the authors. Can suburban consortia help smaller jurisdictions attract state and federal attention and support? (And one more question to chip in there: if they do, what happens when the cast of local leaders changes with each election cycle?) How might the rash of recent incorporations in the Atlanta region affect local capacity and resources available to address growing poverty, and can these places chart a different path than the fragmented and struggling suburbs in the frostbelt? Exploring these questions would continue to build on the important governance framework Mattiuzzi and Weir present.


Response by Margaret Weir and Elizabeth Mattiuzzi

Does the type of local governance matter for concentrated poverty at the neighborhood level? This is the important question Elizabeth Kneebone raises in her comment.  She suggests that overlaying the jurisdictional typology that we present with tract level analysis of poverty would yield new insights. A wealth of research has shown, she correctly points out, that neighborhood poverty at the 20 percent and 40 percent thresholds is associated with the negative neighborhood effects first described by William Julius Wilson over thirty years ago.  We know less about the consequences of poverty at the jurisdictional level.  Indeed, understanding the intersection between jurisdictional poverty rates and neighborhood poverty levels raises a number of significant new questions for research.  We outline some of them below.

One concern Kneebone poses is that large political jurisdictions characteristic of western metros may display less poverty at the jurisdictional level but may in fact contain neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. She points to the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario area as an example. Kneebone suggests that future research could help identify places of emerging disadvantage before they become evident in city-wide or county-wide data. Surfacing such areas, we agree, is of critical importance in these types of jurisdictions. Poverty in suburban-style settings characteristic of these metros is often less visible and can easily be overlooked by public officials.

Additional research questions about large jurisdictions could consider whether this governance type tends to have fewer high poverty neighborhoods over time than do smaller jurisdictions with high poverty. As poverty grows in smaller jurisdictions, the incentives mount for higher income residents to exit in search of stable property values, lower taxes, and better services and schools. The impulse to exit may be less intense in larger jurisdictions with a greater number of nonpoor residents, creating less strain on public resources. Related research has demonstrated that segregation of affluence has become more pronounced in recent years.  Segregation into separate jurisdictions may be more associated with “resource hoarding” while, in principle, segregation within jurisdictions allows for more redistribution. These are empirical questions because there are many ways for wealthier neighborhoods to escape the costs associated with poorer residents, including using their political power to keep taxes low and resources for their own neighborhoods high. Another line of research could investigate prospects for individual upward mobility in poor neighborhoods with different types of governance. If public resources are in fact more robust in larger jurisdictions, does this translate into greater upward mobility as poor residents benefit from better schools and libraries?

Finally, the challenge faced by small poor suburban cities is substantial. Kneebone asks whether suburban consortia can help these jurisdictions.  The problems of collective action among smaller suburbs is a significant one warranting more research. It will likely take more initiative from states to address these problems. The politics surrounding Massachusetts’s “gateway cities” program may offer clues to the challenges involved in getting such initiatives off the ground.


Author Biographies

Elizabeth Kneebone is the Research Director for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley.

Elizabeth Mattiuzzi is a senior researcher in community development at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Her research focuses on regional transportation and housing governance, equity, and economic opportunity. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley.

Margaret Weir is Wilson professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University.  She is former director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network Building Resilient Regions. Her work focuses on social policy, federalism, and local politics in the United States. She is currently working on a book about the politics of spatial inequality in American metropolitan areas.

“Views presented here are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or the Federal Reserve System.”

Image by Wallula from Pixabay.