Ferguson reflects growth of poverty in suburbs

Poorer health outcomes, failing schools, higher crime rates

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FERGUSON, Mo. — Vi­olence and pro­tests in a town out­side St. Louis have high­lighted 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, 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 teen-ager 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 last month 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 Gov. Jay Nixon, a 58-year-old Dem­o­crat who trav­eled to Fer­gu­son ear­lier this month, told re­port­ers that Mr. 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,” Ms. 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 with a 50 per­cent rise in cit­ies. More than one-third of the 46 mil­lion Amer­i­cans in pov­erty now live in sub­urbs, Ms. 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 Sen. Maria Chap­pelle-Nadal, a Dem­o­crat who rep­resents the dis­trict that in­cludes Fer­gu­son, said.

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 Mr. 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,” he said.

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,” Mr. Gor­don said in an in­ter­view on Bloomberg Tele­vi­sion’s Bloomberg Sur­veil­lance with Tom Keene and Adam John­son.

United States - North America - Missouri - St. Louis - Jay Nixon - Michael Brown - Tom Keene


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