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Poverty Has Spread to the Suburbs (And to Suburban Schools)

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More Americans are living in poverty in the suburbs than in urban or rural areas, a dramatic demographic shift that has occurred since 2000, a new report by the Brookings Institution finds. It's a finding that won't be a surprise to plenty of suburban superintendents, who've seen that residential change reflected in the enrollment makeup of their schools.

"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 report says. And that's a problem because challenges associated with concentrated poverty—poor health, higher crime rates, and fewer jobs—"make it that much harder for individuals and families to escape poverty and often perpetuate and entrench poverty across generations."

The report's findings come from an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey data for 2008 through 2012 from the nation's 100 largest metroplitan areas. It found that the overall number of distressed neighborhoods, census tracts with poverty rates of 40 percent or more, has grown by 71.6 percent since 2000. In the same time period, the growth of distressed neighborhoods in the suburbs grew by 150.7 percent.

The report also provides geographic breakdowns, showing that poor suburban residents are more likely to live in concentrated poverty or high-poverty neighborhoods, where poverty rates are between 20 and 40 percent, in certain parts of the country.

suburbanpoor.JPGIt's worth reading the full report for a more detailed look at how poverty has shifted. And you should also check out Brookings' interactive feature, which allows you to explore changes by metropolitan area.

What does this mean for schools?

As I reported in my April story about housing and education outcomes (part of our ongoing War on Poverty series), clusters of poverty are still a concern in urban areas. But, as gentrification drives up housing costs in many cities and as subsidized housing supplies fall well short of demand, many low-income families may have little choice but to move to suburban areas.

While schools in all sorts of communities have worked for years to tackle the effects of poverty for individual students, the Brookings report notes that concentrated poverty requires policy makers to tackle the "'double burden' of not only their poverty, but also the disadvantages of those around them." That may mean increasing reliance on models like community schools, which offer "cradle-to-career" or "wraparound" services, such as in-school health care, parenting interventions, and community outreach to ensure that their students can grow academically. 

While many think of those models as urban interventions, some suburban areas have adopted them as well. A previous policy brief from Brookings highlights a regional approach taken by suburban schools in King County, Wash., south of Seattle. (A side note: King County is home to 2014 Leader to Learn From Mary Newell, a school nurse who developed an in-school clinic for low-income students in Kent, Wash.) That kind of regional collaboration—between schools, private organizations, and community groups—could be a valuable approach for suburban schools in the future, the brief says.

"Suburban school districts, like municipalities, are accustomed to competing with one another for resources," the brief says. "Yet as more suburbs confront the reality of growing poverty and the need to connect their residents to economic opportunity, collaboration is taking root."

How is housing adapting?

Advocates for low-income housing have championed efforts to make Section 8 vouchers more portable, so that families can more easily shift between housing authorities without falling to the bottom of the waiting list. This will make it easier for families to move to neighborhoods that best suit the needs of their children, including their educational needs, advocates say.

Graphic: from the Brookings report

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