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More poor now live in suburbs than city, data reveals

More poor now live in suburbs than city, data reveals

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Poverty in the suburbs rose by 53 percent since 2000. Is the picture-perfect myth of the American Dream at risk?

The American dream: white picket fence, two-car garage, verdant lawn, big-city job without the inner-city crime.

It's very 1950s, no?

After more than a half-century of fulfilling this vision, America may be turning its back on it, embracing instead the one demonstrated in Europe, where the affluent live in the city center and the poor move to the city's outskirts.

It was once a luxury to live so far away from the city. Quickly, it's becoming a burden.

A New York Times report on Monday highlights the economic flip-flop of cities and suburbs in the United States, highlighting the following statistic from Brookings Institution research: since the year 2000, poverty rose by 53 percent in the suburbs.

For the first time, half of those with low enough household incomes to qualify as "poor" live outside, not in, the city.

Sabrina Tavernise reports:

As a result, suburban municipalities — once concerned with policing, putting out fires and repairing roads — are confronting a new set of issues, namely how to help poor residents without the array of social programs that cities have, and how to get those residents to services without public transportation. Many suburbs are facing these challenges with the tightest budgets in years.

"The whole political class is just getting the memo that Ozzie and Harriet don't live here anymore," said Edward Hill, dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.

What was once the home of the middle class is rapidly becoming less so. The trend is most visible in not the largest cities but smaller, regional centers hit the hardest economically: Colorado Springs. Greensboro. Riverside. Cape Coral. Cleveland. Pittsburgh. Even my hometown of Philadelphia, where I've spoken with longtime city residents seeking to relocate to far-flung, blue-sky towns such as Pottstown.

The Times report focuses on the shattered image of suburbia as a prim, perfect, family-friendly place; it's mostly about how crime is on the rise and how the economic downturn has accelerated decay (boarded up windows; overgrown lawns, etc.).

I can't help but wonder, however, if there's a silver lining: an area diversified with low- and high-income residents may be better off than one that's all one and none of the other. (We see this today in some neighborhoods of major cities.)

The challenge, I think, is to ensure that there isn't a complete reverse economic drain (as there was during "White Flight" in the 1950s through 1970s) that leaves the suburbs as poor and decaying as those former inner-city neighborhoods once were.

Urban versus suburban ought to be a lifestyle choice; not an economic one. Can local government put the stereotype behind them to embrace this idea?

Outside Cleveland, Snapshots of Poverty’s Surge in the Suburb [New York Times]

Image: Scanned advertisement for Levittown, Pa. from 1950s. (John Flack, Jr./Flickr)

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure