Poverty by design: Pittsburgh suburbs have long been home to the poor


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Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution released a report titled “Confronting Suburban Poverty.” That report joined a number of recent studies that document the rise of poverty in the suburbs, and it highlighted that poverty is common and growing in suburban Pittsburgh.

We should be concerned with growing rates of poverty everywhere — in suburbs, cities and rural areas. In Pittsburgh, growing poverty is the result of trends that are well known: factory closings, the loss of blue-collar jobs, stagnant wages, an inadequate social safety net, the decline of unions and persistent inequality, particularly along lines of race. Today’s economic system produces poverty as a matter of course; attacks on unions and an already limited welfare state further exacerbate the situation.

That said, poverty always has been common in Pittsburgh’s suburbs.

In the late 19th century, the majority of “suburbs” were industrial towns. They were never suburban in any traditional sense: They lacked the tree-lined streets and large homes that characterized residential suburbs of the day, such as Sewickley and Edgewood. Instead, they were manufacturing centers created by Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse and other industrialists in order to generate stupendous levels of wealth. Conversely, by forcing workers to work long hours in unsafe working conditions and paying them scant wages, these same industrialists generated poverty for the residents of these industrial towns.

Since the late 1800s, industrialists, business executives, political leaders, property developers and suburbanites have designed Pittsburgh’s suburbs in order to concentrate poverty in certain communities and wealth in others. They built different types of suburbs to serve different purposes. These different types persist to this day and, unsurprisingly, the suburbs designed for industry and the working class is where Brookings found most of the poverty documented in its report.

The first type are the elite residential suburbs — the ones you think of when you hear the word suburb. They are sparsely populated, have cul-de-sacs, a strong tax base and their residents are usually well off and own their homes. These are places like Fox Chapel, Upper St. Clair and Murrysville. Poverty is far less common in these communities, which is to be expected as they were designed to maintain the wealth and privileges of their residents.

A second set of suburbs developed to house the working class. These are usually more densely populated, homes are smaller and less expensive, and there are much higher rates of renting.

The growth of working-class suburbs was particularly notable in the period after World War II. Today, these communities, such as Penn Hills and West Mifflin, are key places where poverty is growing. This reflects the reduced earnings of working-class residents at the same time that a variety of pressures are pushing and pulling the poor out of urban areas. Meanwhile, the more affluent residents of these suburbs have moved further into the suburban fringe.

The third “suburbs” are the industrial towns. They are spread throughout the region from Clairton to New Kensington to Aliquippa. They are former sites of manufacturing and mostly developed around mills that lined the river valleys. They share little in common with suburbs, as we conventionally define them.

Residents did not commute outside these communities for work. Housing was dense, renting was common and many of these industrial towns, such as McKeesport, developed working-class suburbs of their own. Poverty has always been very common in these industrial towns and their suburbs. As readers of Thomas Bell’s “Out of This Furnace” know well, these communities have often been a difficult place to make a living.

Exactly 100 years ago, the Pittsburgh Survey — like the Brookings Institution today — “discovered” poverty in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. One key conclusion was that the Pittsburgh region was both the “most prosperous of all the communities of our Western Civilization” and a place defined by miserable life chances for the poor and working class.

Placed alongside the Pittsburgh Survey, the Brookings report highlights the persistence of inequality as one of the defining features of the Pittsburgh region over the past century. While key industries may have changed from factories and mines to universities and hospitals, what remains is a city and its suburbs organized around generating wealth for some and poverty for others.


Patrick Vitale, a former resident of Murrysville, teaches American studies and geography at the University of Toronto and is completing a book manuscript about the history of Pittsburgh and its suburbs during the Cold War.

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