Evans School Professor Scott Allard is taking the traditional understanding of poverty as a mostly urban issue, and expanding it.
“Poverty is a problem for all communities,” said Allard. “Where resources are generated and directed need to be informed by first acknowledging that poverty affects urban, rural, and suburban areas.”
Allard sits at his desk in Parrington Hall, surrounded by packed bookshelves, looking over the final touches to his upcoming book Places in Need. Coming out later this year, it deals with the suburbanization of poverty, where it came from, and how to address it—that is, how poverty in the United States increasingly occurs in the areas surrounding cities.
“I wanted to write this book because there is a perception about poverty that is incorrect,” he said. “There is a belief that poverty is somehow only an urban problem and that is just not true.”
Allard first started researching the suburbanization of poverty in 2007 while writing his first book Out of Reach, an examination of the social safety net, employment services, and health services. In the process, he discovered that there was a massive geographical divide in access and availability of these types of services between urban, rural, and suburban areas.
Allard conducted surveys in metropolitan Chicago, IL, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, CA—and in all the cities, he saw a spillover of need in the suburbs of these metropolitan areas.
On a subsequent trip, Allard met with an executive director of one of the nonprofit food pantries located in a LA suburb. Driving through the neighborhood, they saw boarded up storefronts, check-cashing establishments, and food bank shelves left empty.
“Food pantries are a great barometer of need,” Allard said. “They capture the need very accurately. They are really sensitive to economic change.”
The executive director told Allard that they were unable to keep up with the demand and that their supply of food is constantly low. While donors understand that food banks are important, they often do not think the need exists for food banks in the suburbs.
Economic change in the suburbs comes in the form of loss of job opportunities and immigration away from urban cities as gentrification pushes middle class and working class families out. This mass movement is leading to significant population growth in suburbs, but no correlating increase of systems set up to combat these changes.
Suburban areas often have fewer nonprofits focused on poverty alleviation and less government funding compared to urban areas. Anti-poverty policy since the sixties has focused on the needs of urban areas. Urban poverty is still a massive problem with a higher concentration level than other geographic areas, but the sheer amount of poverty in the suburbs has grown—so much so that there are more poor people living in suburbs than in urban settings.
There are misconceptions of suburban poverty even amongst those who live in those areas themselves, according to Allard’s research; he found that many suburbanites view poverty as a problem occurring only in urban areas. Allard argues that for many of them “urban” is a coded term for people of color. The problem with this link between place and race is that it undermines support for needed solutions.
Allard’s book explores some of the possible solutions to this growing problem. Simple transference of anti-poverty program funding from urban areas to suburbs will not work. Seeking out additional public and private funds to support programs, cultivating local political will, and expanding of employment and education opportunities would be more effective.
“We need to support young leaders, and especially young people of color, to engage poverty issues out in the suburbs,” Allard said. “We need new leadership that not only reflects the changing face of the suburbs, but has the skills needed to put policies into place. There is a desperate need in the suburbs.”
Russell Sage Foundation Press will publish Allard’s book in May 2017.