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Poverty in America… No Longer an Urban Thing.

A Brookings infographic on the reasons for rising poverty in the Suburbs.

The rest of this study can be found here.

One of the popular beliefs of the American ignorati (AKA conservatives, and their racist co-conspirators) is that poverty in America is confined to the “ghetto”. Not really surprising that they should be so far out of step with reality, when much of their belief system is based on a book written by Patrick Moynahan over half a century ago about conditions in the mid 1960’s.

With the collapse of American manufacturing, and it’s relocation to China – urban areas have undergone wholesale change as people have moved out to find jobs. This has resulted in a reversal of the “Great Migration” of the 1920’s and 30’s, where black folks moved wholesale out of the South to the North urban centers for better jobs building Fords and Chryslers. The segregation of the time stratifying the neighborhoods into urban clusters.

Creating a very convenient Pinata for the racist right.

Unfortunately for the right’s favorite talking point, twin forces are conspiring to destroy the urban ghetto. Gentrification, and the residents desire to seek employment. Tashwaniankia has moved to the ‘burbs!

Suburbs and the New American Poverty

More people with low incomes now live outside of cities, and some areas are ill-equipped to deal with the influx of the poor.

NORCROSS, Ga.—Every weekday around 3:15 p.m., a big, yellow school bus stops on Pelican Drive outside Norcross Extended Stay, near the intersection with Best Friend Drive.

Dozens of children file out, carrying their heavy backpacks away from the Wendy’s and the AutoZone, towards the cluster of aging three-story yellow buildings where they live. Some are met by waiting parents, others trek by themselves to the shabby motel rooms, marching past broken-down cars, their tires flat, scattered around the parking lot, and discarded mattresses piled next to some of the residences.

That families are living in extended-stay motels like this one may seem surprising in a town like Norcross, founded in 1870 and named one of the best places to livein Georgia by Movoto, a real estate blog, last year. Gwinnett County, where Norcross is located, is, in parts, a collection of well-off towns like Duluth, home to NeNe Leaks, of Real Housewives of Atlanta fame. Its unemployment rate is just 5.7 percent and one of its schools, the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, was recently named one of the best in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

But the suburbs of Atlanta no longer hold just the promise of good schools, clean streets, and whitewashed homes with manicured lawns proudly displaying American flags. They are increasingly home to the very poor, who find themselves stranded in suburbs without the kind of transit or assistance that they might once have found in cities’ urban cores. They are stuck in places like Norcross Extended Stay, that see the same type of crime that families might have once seen in metro Atlanta. (A few years back, the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department had to order 20 sex offenders to leave the motel, because it was located near a public pool.)

Joanna Watkins stays at home with her grandkids in one of the tiny rooms in Norcross Extended Stay while her daughter borrows her car to work as a waitress nearby. On the day I met them, Watkins’ granddaughters lounged on the motel’s polyester, flowered bedspreads watching TV while Watkins peered nervously out of the motel room’s first-floor window.

“We don’t let the kids go outside,” Watkins told me, explaining that the family is looking for something better. She moved from Texas in September to help out with childcare, but with her daughter’s low wages, they’re still looking for a more suitable place to live.Fully 88 percent of Atlanta’s poor live in the suburbs, according to Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution. Between 2000 and 2011, Atlanta’s suburban poor population grew by 159 percent, while the city’s poor population remained essentially flat.

 It’s not just Atlanta—across much of the country, poverty is increasingly a problem found in the suburbs. The number of poor in the suburbs surpassed the number of poor in the cities in the 2000s, and by 2011, almost 16.4 million suburban residents lived below the poverty line, according to Kneebone and Berube.

 

Poor Residents in Cities and Suburbs, 1970-2012

The fact that more poor people live in the suburbs doesn’t have to be a bad thing, Kneebone told me. If low-income residents have access to good job opportunities, affordable housing, low crime rates, and good schools, then the suburbs can provide a path out of poverty.

But poverty has increased so quickly in some suburbs that these areas are ill-equipped to deal with it, she said.

“Many of these communities lack the infrastructure, safety-net supports, and resources to address the needs of a growing poor population, which can make it that much harder for poor residents to connect to the kinds of opportunities that can help them get out of poverty in the long run,” she said.

The problem speaks to a different kind of erosion of the American Dream, in which families strive to get to the much-vaunted suburbs, only to find out there’s nothing for them there. And as suburbs see more and more poverty, they become the same traps that impoverished, urban neighborhoods once were, where someone born there has few chances to improve his economic standing.

There are more tangible problems that arise when poverty grows in the suburbs. Often, government structures change more slowly than the population at large, and residents find themselves represented—and policed—by people who don’t understand their needs or concerns. The unrest in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, over the past year, reflects this conflict.

Suburbs also have less transit than urban areas, making it difficult for low-income residents to get to jobs or buy groceries. And social services have been slow to follow the poor to the suburbs, so many suburban poor find themselves isolated and without a safety net, hidden from those who might be able to help.

 This all became extremely clear to the Reverend Harriet Bradley, who lives in an extended-stay motel in Gwinnett County, where a neon sign advertises rooms for $169 a week. She has no car, and depends on public transit to get around. It can take her three hours to get to church some days, and the public transit in the county doesn’t run on the weekends.

She says she was called by God to talk to other public-transit riders about the need to expand the bus system, and recently decided to attend a public hearing of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners to ask them to divert more support to public transit in the county. After two long bus rides, she waited through hours of dull zoning appeals and then, right before the meeting ended, was given a few minutes to speak.

The crowd was diverse, but the commissioners were all white. Over the last decade, Gwinnett has become the most racially-diverse county in Atlanta. Between the 2000 and 2010 census, the county’s African American populationadded 112,000 residents, growing 143 percent, while the county’s Asian population doubled, adding 43,000 residents. The white population grew by a mere 1,680 residents. Still, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners is all white, as is the county school board, and all of the judges elected to county’s state and superior courts.

Bradley, who is African American, cleared her throat and stood in front of a round table of white elected officials and staff, and asked for more transit funding.”The bus schedules don’t start early or run late enough,” she said. “I’ve often heard people around me say, ‘They don’t realize that I can’t get to work.'”

A person without a car who wanted to attend that very meeting would not have been able to get home afterward because the bus doesn’t run late enough, she said (she’d arranged for a ride home). Gwinnett County residents without cars can’t get jobs at the mall or local warehouses, or at Atlanta’s airport south of the city—the busiest airport in the world—because the buses don’t allow them to get to work on time.

 “Many people have had to turn down jobs because they couldn’t get there,” she said, ending her speech.

Afterwards, she spoke individually to a few commissioners but felt mostly ignored. “The commissioners—they don’t really want public transportation out here,” she told me afterwards. “They wouldn’t use it anyway.” (…More…)

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