Futurewire Newsletter

Futurewire - 2014 February

Suburban Poverty, in Seattle and Across America

by Alan Berube, Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program

January 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of a “War on Poverty.” In the State of the Union address in which he declared that war, Johnson spoke about the need to pursue poverty “in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations…in the boom towns and the depressed areas.”

Fifty years on, the poverty Johnson sought to eradicate is still with us, and it has moved to the suburbs. More poor people live in suburbs than in cities, and the number of poor in suburbs grew at more than twice the rate as in cities in the 2000s. The War, however, has not caught up.

Perhaps no region better exemplifies the new geography of poverty than Seattle. It is a microcosm of the stark national trend of rising suburban poverty, and the various factors driving that trend. At the same time, it points new ways forward for the next 50 years of anti-poverty policy in America.
That’s why in May 2013, when my colleague Elizabeth Kneebone and I published a book entitled, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, the Seattle region was one of the central case studies in the book. The story of South King County is among several in the book that attempt to portray the reality of suburban poverty in metro areas across the country, from the ground up. This article provides a brief overview of how poverty suburbanized in the Seattle area, what it means, and what the next generation of public policies should do about it.

Transformation in Seattle’s Suburbs
Historically, South King County benefited from proximity to jobs, particularly big employers like Boeing and the Port of Seattle. In the years after World War II, communities like Tukwila, Auburn, Kent, and Renton built tens of thousands of new homes and apartments to house a new generation of workers and families that built the region’s middle class.

Those communities grew tremendously over the subsequent several decades, but they and their residents endured their share of economic challenges along the way. At no time was that more true than during the 1970s, when for a time, Boeing shed almost two-thirds of its jobs region-wide. Manufacturing subsequently bounced back, but by 1999 represented only 14 percent of private payrolls in King County, down from 30 percent in 1969. Manufacturing’s decline and technological transformation shrank access to middle-income jobs for residents who had no more than a high school education.
Meanwhile, those economic shifts occurred against the backdrop of rapid demographic changes, including the arrival of new immigrant and refugee populations. Most population increase in King County since 1990 has been among persons of color. Immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa, as well as native-born African American and Latino populations, settled South King County in increasing numbers over the past two decades.
A third dynamic contributing to demographic and economic change in South King County is the increasing popularity of the city of Seattle. For more than 10 years, the city has experienced steady increases in population and house prices. The median monthly rent in Seattle in 2012 approached $1,100, up significantly from a decade before. Price increases in the South King County suburbs have been more modest, making them home to an increasing share of the region's affordable housing. And the housing market crash and ensuing foreclosure crisis of the late 2000s hit harder in Seattle’s suburbs than in the city itself.

As a consequence of these trends - economic, demographic, and affordable housing shifts - there are today about 4 times as many poor residents in the suburbs of the Seattle region (King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties outside the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue) as there were in 1970, and about 75 percent more than just 12 years ago. (The federal government considers a household of three earning less than $19,000 in 2013 to be poor.) That increase reflects not only the movement of low-income residents into the region and its suburbs, but also “downward mobility” among many longstanding residents. Today more than three in five poor residents of King County live outside the city of Seattle.
None of which suggests that the city of Seattle does not still face significant challenges around poverty, especially in the wake of the recession. Indeed, about one in seven residents of the city is poor, and the number of poor individuals in Seattle rose 36 percent between 2000 and the beginning of the 2010s. However, that was a much more modest increase than many South King County suburbs felt. In SeaTac and Federal Way, the poor population roughly doubled in that time. It more than doubled in Auburn and Kent. And the number of poor nearly tripled in Renton.

A National Phenomenon
While Seattle exemplifies a lot of the dynamics around suburbanizing poverty in America, it's hardly alone. Chicago, for instance, has long been synonymous with urban poverty, represented by hulking mid-century public housing projects like Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor Homes. Today, those projects are gone, and while urban poverty still characterizes the city’s south and west sides, weak growth region-wide has resulted in more poor individuals living in Chicago’s suburbs than in the city itself. Yet the more than 280 suburban jurisdictions that comprise greater Chicago lack the capacity that urban communities have built over decades, capacity they now need to help serve rapidly growing poor populations.

Houston, to take another example, hasn't faced the sort of economic challenges that Chicago or even Seattle has over the last decade. But it’s growing fast, and between 2000 and 2011, its suburban poor population more than doubled, as those communities added tens of thousands of low-paying service jobs that leave many workers short of the poverty line. Houston’s suburbs, too, house more poor individuals today than its central city. There remain good job opportunities within the region, but many are out of reach for struggling suburban families.

Places like Seattle, Chicago, and Houston are the new normal. In a majority of the nation’s major metropolitan areas, the suburban poor outnumber the urban poor. Across the largest 100 metro areas, there were 16.5 million poor people in 2012, 3 million more than in cities.

And while many suburbs provide a better platform for the economic and social mobility of the poor than do inner-city neighborhoods, other suburban communities and their low-income residents face distinctive challenges: lack of transportation options; a threadbare local safety net and limited philanthropy; schools coping with new and unfamiliar pressures; and limited local capacity and fragmented local governance structures that make poverty no one’s problem, even as it grows and spreads across the map.

Policy Challenges Posed by Suburban Poverty
In those ways, public policies designed to confront poverty in place map awkwardly onto poverty’s new suburban landscape. This is evident from a cursory look at where federal dollars for some place-based anti-poverty initiatives go within King County.

Despite the fact that 63 percent of the county’s poor residents live outside Seattle, a majority of federal dollars for key place-based services in 2012 - Head Start and child care, community health centers, summer food programs, and the like - went to organizations in the city.

The disparity was even starker for affordable housing development programs, like the Community Development Block Grant, HOME, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. Those programs delivered $37 million to Seattle in 2012, versus just $9 million to suburban King County. It's not that the city doesn't have affordable housing needs, but the imbalance is still striking.
In our book, we estimated that the federal government alone spent $82 billion on place-based anti-poverty programs in 2012, but spread those dollars across more than 80 programs and 10 federal agencies. By and large, these programs were built to address the landscape of distress described in Johnson’s speech, targeting entrenched urban and rural poverty. Many have proven inflexible and slow to adapt to suburban needs. The infrastructure, access points, and local expertise and political will on which the success of these programs relies simply do not exist in many suburbs today. “Neighborhood economic development” doesn’t work very well in areas that don’t have any economic developers - or actual neighborhoods, for that matter.

The Road Ahead
Fortunately, King County and its suburbs are also emerging as national leaders in developing new ways to confront suburban poverty.

In 2010, seven neighboring school districts, including schools on Seattle’s south side, came together to form the Road Map Project. The Project works collectively to reduce educational achievement gaps across the region and prepare all kids for college and careers in Greater Seattle’s high-tech economy. Where competition among South King County cities is often the norm - and continues to be on many other issues - these places are finding that collaboration is key to addressing shared educational challenges.

One can see similar energy and entrepreneurialism in other regions experiencing the suburbanization of poverty. The Chicago region is home to IFF, a $240 million multiservice community development financial institution operating across five Midwestern states. IFF helps to address gaps in capacity-strained suburbs by blending financial capacity with nonprofit real estate development, technical assistance, research and public policy expertise. Its ability to finance priorities strategically stretches limited resources further to help more people and places.
In the Houston region, Neighborhood Centers is a $275 million social services agency that helps families and communities in more than 60 sites, in both the city and its suburbs, access social and economic opportunities. To do so, Neighborhood Centers blends support from upwards of 35 different federal programs, with private and philanthropic dollars to create a seamless continuum of services. Because of its scale, the organization can tailor services to meet the needs of a diverse array of places, while improving the quality and efficiency of its service delivery.
Leading organizations like these are able to blend fragmented federal dollars with state, local, and private investments. They cut across city and suburban lines, and across policy silos, effectively playing the role of a regional “quarterback.”

All this implies a few things for efforts to confront suburban poverty in the Seattle region, and to achieve greater equity, social justice, and economic growth region-wide.

First, King County’s new Health and Human Services Transformation Plan aims to ensure that limited dollars are used in a more integrated and outcome-focused way. In this sense, King County itself is stepping up to play the role of regional quarterback, particularly given new opportunities under the Affordable Care Act. More dollars are surely needed to wrestle with the scale of need in the county, particularly the south suburbs, but the plan represents a very important first step.
Second, Futurewise’s work with King County under the Equity (k)NOW Project is providing a critical framework and tools for ensuring that the county’s low-income families have access to communities in which they can succeed. That means a blend of transportation options, quality schools, access to jobs, and a mix of housing types. Poverty is now a permanent part of the suburban landscape, but with the right kinds of community supports, it need not be a permanent part of any family’s experience.

And third, it’s not enough to move poor families to better places in the county. Low-income people need better economic opportunities in the places they live today. To deliver on that, cities in South King County should work together, rather than against one another, to create a common vision and strategies for that sub-region’s future, building on the substantial economic and cultural assets already present there. This is happening today in places like Southern Cook County, Illinois, and the Far East Bay in California. Those communities’ participation in the Road Map Project lays an important foundation for future, deeper collaboration.

The Seattle region is where the country will be in 20 or 30 years - demographically, economically, and geographically when it comes to the distribution of economic and social opportunity. How the region works together to promote metro-wide prosperity will lay important groundwork for the next 50 years of a new, more bottom-up War on Poverty.

Alan Berube is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director in the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Click here to learn more about Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. Sign up here to receive email updates from Confronting Suburban Poverty.


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