A week of violence and protests in a town outside St. Louis is highlighting how poverty is growing most quickly on the outskirts of America’s cities, as suburbs have become home to a majority of the nation’s poor.
In Ferguson, Missouri, a community of 21,000 where the poverty rate doubled since 2000, the dynamic has bred animosity over racial segregation and economic inequality. Protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9 have drawn international attention to the St. Louis suburb’s growing underclass.
Such challenges aren’t unique to Ferguson, according to a Brookings Institution report July 31 that found the poor population growing twice as fast in U.S. suburbs as in city centers. From Miami to Denver, resurgent downtowns have blossomed even as their recession-weary outskirts struggle with soaring poverty in what amounts to a paradigm shift.
“We’ve passed this tipping point and there are now more poor people in the suburbs than the cities,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the report and a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. “In those communities, we see things like poorer health outcomes, failing schools and higher crime rates.”
In predominantly black Ferguson, residents protesting the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown also complain about the lack of jobs and a city government that doesn’t reflect the community’s diversity. Inhabitants of the city, which has lost more than 40 percent of its white population since 2000, said they’ve long felt disenfranchised by a mostly white city council and police force.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a 58-year-old Democrat who traveled to Ferguson Aug. 14, told reporters that Brown’s death was like “an old wound that had been hit again,” exposing underlying challenges. The St. Louis metropolitan area ranked as one of the most segregated in the U.S. in a 2011 study by Brown University.
Ferguson, once a majority white community that’s now about two-thirds black, highlights that dynamic. Coinciding with the decline in white population is a rapid rise in poverty since 2000, a period that includes the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009.
While Ferguson’s median income in 2000 was on par with that of Missouri that year, it has since fallen behind. The median income of $37,500 trailed the state at $47,300 in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
“Looking at the neighborhood poverty rates, it’s striking how much has changed over a decade,” Kneebone said. “In Ferguson in 2000, none of the neighborhoods had hit that 20 percent poverty rate. By the end of the 2000s, almost every census tract met or exceeded that poverty rate. That’s a really rapid change in a really short time.”
The poverty rate in Ferguson was 22 percent in 2012, the most recent available, up from 10.2 percent in 2000, according to Census data.
Suburban locales from the outskirts of Atlanta to Colorado Springs have seen similar trends. The number of poor people living in impoverished U.S. suburbs has more than doubled since 2000, comparing to a 50 percent rise in cities. More than one-third of the 46 million Americans in poverty now live in suburbs, Kneebone said.
“The median income is so low in Ferguson that people are really struggling, living from check to check, and they’re even behind checks,” state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat who represents the district that includes Ferguson, said in a telephone interview.
Rising suburban poverty has been greater in the Midwest, said Lincoln Quillian, professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The housing crisis spurred the upward trend, while urban gentrification displaced poor people to the suburban fringe, he said.
There’s “more risk” of unrest like the protests that shook Ferguson because of the suburban poverty increase, said Quillian, chairman of the Institute for Policy Research’s program on urban policy and community development at Northwestern.
“In the U.S., poor black communities definitely are more likely to have something like that happen because of images that the police and other people have about poor people and black people, but also because these places on average tend to have higher crime rates,” Quillian said in a telephone interview.
‘Chain of Policies’
Colin Gordon, a professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said “a chain of policies” fueled segregation in St. Louis that helped concentrate the black population on the north side of the city, where Ferguson is located.
“For much of the latter half of the 20th century, it was a pattern of segregation by race, and that’s been displaced somewhat by a segregation by income, which is growing starker and starker in cities like St. Louis,” Gordon said.
Race has been a central theme this week as protests over Brown’s death turned violent. Police officers in riot gear drove black armored vehicles through the city and fired tear gas at protesters. The demonstrations began after Brown was shot dead by police near his grandmother’s home in Ferguson.
Police say Brown attacked officer Darren Wilson and reached for his gun before he was shot. Residents said Brown was shot after raising his hands in surrender.
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