Poor in the suburbs: Both parties need to fight rising poverty

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Where is poverty growing fastest, in Pennsylvania and across the nation? Not in central cities such as Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Not in often-neglected rural communities, in Appalachia and elsewhere.

Since the turn of the century, a new study concludes, the largest, fastest-growing segment of poor Americans lives in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas -- including communities that are considered affluent, or at least comfortable.

The study by the Brookings Institution finds that suburban poverty crosses political divisions. The Great Recession devastated Republican and Democratic districts alike and, in fact, the study says, suburbs in Republican districts endured greater increases in poverty in the past decade than those in Democratic districts. Democrats still tend to represent poorer suburbs than Republicans, but that gap has narrowed. So both parties have an incentive to attack suburban poverty.

The trend is evident in U.S. House districts near Pittsburgh, as they existed before last year's reapportionment:

• In the 14th District, represented by Democrat Mike Doyle and including the city of Pittsburgh, the suburban-poor population rose by 12.9 percent from 2000 to 2011. The district's suburban poverty rate rose by 2.9 percentage points during that period, to 15 percent.

• In the largely suburban 12th District, represented by Republican Keith Rothfus, the suburban-poor population rose by 12.1 percent, and the suburban poverty rate by 1.0 percentage point, to 7.9 percent.

• In the 18th District, represented by Republican Tim Murphy, the suburban-poor population rose by 10.6 percent, and the suburban poverty rate by 0.6 percentage point to 7.6 percent.

• Two other Republican-led districts in the region had significant suburban poverty rates. In the 3rd District, between Butler and Erie and led by Rep. Mike Kelly, the rate was 10.5 percent. In the 9th District, which includes the territory spanning Uniontown, Bedford, Altoona and Indiana and which is led by Rep. Bill Shuster, the suburban poverty rate was 18.6 percent.

The Brookings researchers argue that the federal policies created to help people in poor communities don't match up well with poverty's new suburban geography. Poverty, wherever it exists, isn't high on Congress' agenda.

Many Republican lawmakers from suburban districts want to slash programs that help poor Americans, such as food stamps. They seek to block the expansion of health insurance that Obamacare would provide. Yet these officials must explain why they pursue policies that would harm a growing number of their constituents.

Some suburbanites think they can wall themselves off from the contagion of poverty, but these statistics show them to be wrong. Their neighbors already include poor people, and they need help.

Suburban poverty may recede as the economy recovers, but it won't go away. All Americans -- elected officials and their constituents -- must unite to address that challenge.

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