Ferguson reflects growth of poverty in suburbs

Poorer health outcomes, failing schools, higher crime rates

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

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


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here