It’s not your imagination: cities are getting richer, and suburbs are getting poorer. As a recent Brookings Institute report pointed out, more poor inhabitants of the U.S. live in suburbs than in cities and rural areas. That’s evident from even a cursory look at the Urban Institute’s new maps that look at poverty and race in the U.S. between 1980 and 2010.
The maps include dozens of metro areas—everywhere from Abilene, Texas, to Weirton, West Virginia. By and large, the trends are clear: There’s more poverty in the suburbs, and more racial and ethnic diversity in the poor population. But Margery Turner, VP for research at the Urban Institute, points out that "while there are some very high-level trends across the country, in fact every metropolitan area is different.
Take Houston, Texas.
In this metro area, poor people live all over the place—not just in the suburbs. That’s because Houston has a strong labor market and low housing costs. "It’s an example of a place that smashes stereotypes. It’s tremendously diverse place with whites, latinos, African Americans, and immigrants from many diverse countries," says Turner. "You don’t see the kind of rigid patterns of where poor people live, where particular groups live that you see in Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C."
Washington, D.C., epitomizes many of the trends that have occurred in the last few decades. In 1980, the area was really "a black and white metro area with poverty and particularly black poverty very highly concentrated," says Turner.
Today, the region is much more ethnically diverse—and so are the suburbs and low-income communities. There’s white, Hispanic, and Asian poverty all over the place, but especially in the suburbs. At the same time, while there has been some dispersion of black poverty, there are also some persistent areas of black poverty that are in the exact same place today that they were in 1980.
"It’s an example of a glass half full, half empty story that some really positive changes are happening as the population becomes more diverse and suburbs open up, but many African Americans in many metro areas remain really concentrated and isolated in very distressed areas created by policies of the 20th century," explains Turner.
Chicago Magazine drills down into what the maps mean for the Chicago metro area, where suburban non-white poverty has dramatically increased since 1980, even creeping into neighboring northwest Indiana. The magazine explains: "Looking down at the poverty of Chicagoland from space, it almost looks like a sand painting that’s been blown from the east. The racial patterns, which divide the city into slices, like a cake, are actually similar over time—they just extend farther out."
The Urban Institute is already working on related tools, including one that will look at how spatial patterns for the poor differ by age or family type, and another that will examine indicators at the metro level that reveal how areas fall into distress and bounce back (or not). Yet another tool will look at the racial composition of public employees over time (beginning in 1960) and how it compares to the general population of a metro area.
The Institute’s new tools are aimed at a larger audience than the policymakers and "thought leaders" that it has traditionally targeted. "We have smart, imaginative, young people on the team who get a cool idea and go out and find out how to combine a whole bunch of tools and present what is publicly available data in a way that’s much more interesting and accessible than what’s sitting on a census website," says Turner.