Trending Globally: The Changing Geography of Poverty

Trending Globally: The Changing Geography of Poverty


[JAZZ MUSIC PLAYING] Today, our Trending
Globally conversation will focus on the changing
geography of poverty in the United States. And joining us for
our conversation are Scott Allard, professor
at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the
University of Washington, and Margaret Weir, the Wilson
Professor of International and Public Affairs
in political science here at Brown University. Both Scott and Margaret are
experts on social welfare policy and urban policy. I’m Susan Moffitt, the
director of the Taubman Center for American
Politics and Policy. Welcome, Scott and Margaret. Thanks for joining us today. It is such a treat to be sitting
at a table with both of you. Indeed, it’s really great
to be back at Brown. I was a faculty member
here in the early 2000s. And it’s just great to be back. It’s great to have you
here, too, Margaret, one of my favorite
people, a mentor for a good part of my career. So Scott, I’d like us
to start by asking you what inspired you to write
your new book, Places in Need– The Changing
Geography of Poverty. It ties back to my
time here at Brown. I was finishing my first
book, Out of Reach, which is about changes in the
safety net that really led to a rising importance
of human service provision to low-income
working poor families. And I was finishing that
book and thinking about how– about the spatial distribution
of human services in cities and how it changed over time. And I did a survey
of organizations. And to check the
quality of the data, I went and visit some of
the survey respondents where they were. My study sites were
LA, Chicago, and DC. So I happened on
a trip out to LA. And I was visiting
several of the providers. And I went to a– I had the address
of a food bank. And it wasn’t in LA. It was actually in
another municipality, which isn’t unusual out there. The city of Los Angeles is
actually smaller in footprint than people associate with
the place Los Angeles. And so I started driving. And I was like, wow, I’m really
getting far outside the city. And I checked my map. And sure enough, that’s
where I was supposed to be. And so I pull in. And the executive director’s
meeting me at the front door. And she says, oh, I am
so glad you’re here. I’ve been wanting
to talk to you. We have been trying
to think about what’s happening in our food bank. And we hope you can
help us process. And so I walked in. And immediately, it
was clear that this was a place that was doing a lot
of work with families in need. They had tables set
up in the lobby, where there were computer monitors. And they were having
food stamp eligibility workers come in and sign
people up for food stamps. The shelves in the food
pantry were literally bare. They couldn’t keep
food on the shelf. As soon as they got donations
or USDA food commodities, they went right out the door. And she told me that
their number of clients have been increasing by 10%
every month for the last two years. This is before the
Great Recession. And I’m not in Los Angeles. I’m not in even a poor suburb
like Compton in South Central. I’m in a place where you
would think this is where they filmed The Brady Bunch. [MUSIC – THEME FROM “THE BRADY
BUNCH”] (SINGING) That’s the way we
all became the Brady Bunch. The Brady Bunch,
the Brady Bunch– that’s the way we
became the Brady Bunch. And I was just shocked by this. It ran counter to
everything that I thought of as a scholar, poverty– as an urban scholar. And so I came back to Brown. And around the time I got back,
the Brookings Institution, where I’m a fellow, started
to release some studies that show that there were actually
more poor people in the suburbs than in cities. And suddenly, the
visit to LA started to make more sense to me. And so I started the research
and development on this book as I was leaving Brown and went
to the University of Chicago for several years and
then now at the University of Washington. And I crafted the
book around ideas that I had here based on
that visit to Los Angeles. And what do you see as some of
the main findings of your book? Sure. What was surprising? Well, so I think I already gave
away one of the key findings. Like my colleagues
at Brookings, I found that there were–
there was evidence there were far more poor people
in the suburbs of our cities than in the cities themselves. And that runs counter to
this spatial discourse we have about
poverty in America, where we think of poverty as
being an urban phenomenon. I also found that
this wasn’t new. We talk about it as if it’s
a post-recession reality. But if you go back
to 1990, there were almost as many poor people
in the suburbs of our cities than in the cities themselves. And that’s at a
point when we were having a national conversation
about urban poverty. And if you were in academia,
you were reading books called The Urban Underclass. And you were reading
William Julius Wilson and thinking about
concentrated poverty in cities. But yet at that point,
there was still quite a bit of suburban poverty. And so it had been a blind spot
for academics for a long time. And so in the book, I talk
about these demographic changes, about how there are more
poor people in suburbs, about how deep
poverty, something that we think of as
being an urban phenomenon or rural phenomenon, is actually
much more prevalent in suburbs than in cities. And I start to, in the book,
talk about why it matters. It matters for a
variety of reasons. One, our perceptions of poverty,
because we tie them to place and we tie them to race–
we think of poverty as being a problem
for urban residents and for people of
color in cities. I argue it leads to diminished
support for the safety net because we associate racial
stereotypes with the poor. And that leads to less
support for the safety net that we would have otherwise. And so not only is this
not a– that this idea that poverty’s a city problem– the Trump administration
ran around for the entire campaign
talking about this– that’s not true,
demographically. But it also then
works to undermine support that we would provide
for anybody, regardless of where they live or their
race or ethnic background. We need law and order. And we need law and
order in the inner cities because the people that are most
affected by what’s happening are African-American
and Hispanic people. And it’s very unfair to
them what our politicians are allowing to happen. The thing that I would add
to that is that suburb is– covers a lot of different kinds
of situations in which people live, different governments. So, for example, in the
work on the suburbanization of poverty– included, as a suburb, are
very, very different place– so for example, a
declining industrial city on the outskirts of Chicago,
Waukegan, or Zion, Illinois. Central Falls here is
included as a suburb. But at the same time,
so are Sun Belt places that are kind of strips of
apartment buildings outside of these areas. So I think one of the
things that is important when we think about
suburban poverty is to have this very
diverse setting in mind. It’s not just the cul-de-sac,
single-family house that we think of as suburbs,
but that suburbs themselves are extremely diverse in
the kind of governments that you find there, in the
kind of housing situations you find there. And that diversity,
I think, is one of the things that makes it
tough to understand how to– exactly what the
problem suburban poverty poses, and also
how to address it. Yeah. I totally agree with that. When I started, I had
a lot of conversations with people about how
do we define a suburb. And there’s not a lot of– there’s some agreement. But there’s debate. And in individual metro areas,
that question is different. And you’d want to tackle it
differently, a little bit. What I try to do in the book
is lay out a real clear method of how I defined a suburb. And in the national
data and trends, it doesn’t matter that much
how you define a suburb. So you could count
Cambridge, or you couldn’t. You can count Lowell,
or you couldn’t. It doesn’t change the national
trajectories or figures that much because most
places, it’s more cut or dry. The point about the
diversity of suburbs is a really important
one, though. And you know this
from your work. And Susan, you know this
from doing work in schools. There’s a lot more
diversity of what suburbs are, whether you’re
thinking about government institutions or as places
to live, than in cities, in many ways. And this is true for
rural areas, too. There’s a much more
rural diversity, I think, of context
than we appreciate. And I think that challenges
some of the stereotypes we have. We think about suburbs as
these kind of Brady Bunch, homogeneous, white places– single-family,
ranch-style homes. It’s kind of the ideal. But it’s not really like that. And in different places, how
the community is composed and the nature of
the housing stock, the nature of transportation
and employment, really changes or affects how
poverty presents itself, the trends and poverty,
but also the opportunities to provide support
to families in need. So given all of this
diversity of suburbs, what do you see as
some common themes of problems facing the suburbs? Well, I know Margaret and
I have talked about this over the last several years. We talk about the
safety net often in its federal program form. So we talk about programs
like Medicaid or food stamps, or SNAP, or we talk about
TANF, welfare cash assistance for single moms. We talk about the
Earned Income Tax Credit, these large
federal programs that– many of them are very
effective at reducing poverty or mediating the
effects of poverty. But a large part
of our safety net, and a part that we often don’t
think about often enough, are the human service
programs, which are really the glue of the safety net. But they’re highly localized. So these are the job training
programs or the emergency food assistance programs
or the free clinics that help people who may not
be eligible for public programs or help people when they have
a short-term loss of work or earnings or a
spell of unemployment. And those programs are huge. We spend probably almost
$200 billion a year on these programs. And they’re a huge part of how
we help low-income communities. But most of that capacity
is concentrated in cities for a variety of reasons. Part of it’s that’s where we
made our public investments. Part of it– that’s where
charitable philanthropy has targeted their investments. Margaret’s work speaks to this. And part of it’s that we don’t–
because we think of poverty as an urban problem, a
lot of our private giving, a lot of our volunteerism, and
a lot of the political will we need to mobilize to develop
local solutions for poverty, just aren’t present in
many suburban communities, or not nearly present enough. And the other issue in suburban
communities is transportation. Suburban communities,
for the most part, did not develop
large public sectors. They may have good parks. And they may have good highways. And they may have good schools,
which is an important thing to think about. But transportation is a huge
problem for low-income people in these suburban areas. I think one of the differences
between suburban areas, rural areas, and
urban areas is just the distances people
have to cover, often without adequate transportation. Their poverty is
often less visible because they’re
spread out in ways that are distinct from cities. And it becomes very
difficult for them to access the services,
especially if those services are back in the city. [MUSIC PLAYING] And so when you start to look at
different parts of the country, you can see also huge variation
in the availability of a safety net. So it’s the suburbs. But it’s even worse in
some kinds of suburbs. Distinctive histories make for
very different kinds of access to these supportive
social services. So we have some idea
that local initiative is what is– what it takes to
address problems of poverty. And local initiative is
part of what it takes to address issues of poverty. But I think you can see from
the unevenness of our safety net that something more is needed. In the book and in my
work, I talk about the– I ask the question,
is there a difference between being poor
in an urban setting or an urban or suburban setting? And in many ways, I think
that the experience of poverty is the same. When we’re poor, we experience
the stress and anxiety of being poor. We experience the hardship of
not having enough food to eat or not having a
secure, stable place to live, maybe not
having reliable access to transportation
or health care, worrying about how to
provide for our kids, worrying that we might be a
sick child or a sick parent away from falling
into deeper hardship. I think those experiences
are common across geography. When we’re poor in
different contexts, there’s things that come out. So one of the questions I don’t
think we know, actually, is– we know that if– if we know that the experience
of poverty in cities is tied to the concentration
of poverty and exposure to violence, exposure to
poorly supported or poorly run community organizations
and institutions, often, one of the questions that I ask
is, is that true in suburbs? And we don’t know. We know that there
are some suburbs that are really advantaged. Some places have really
strong nonprofit communities, really strong parks and schools,
churches or congregations, good access to transportation. But then there are lots
of communities that don’t. And the challenges
of economies of scale that human service
providers face– it’s much harder to figure
out how to locate or provide programs when you don’t have
the population densities that you need to achieve
economies of scale to supply services. I think one of the big
differences between urban, suburban, and rural is the– in suburban areas– at
least have the possibility that some of these
urban nonprofits that have been in existence
for a long time can locate satellites out
in the suburban areas. And you have regional
organizations of the United Way and philanthropies that
may be looking to see where are new pockets of need. And then there are, of course– there are some suburbs
that have a lot of money. And if you’re poor in a suburb
that has a lot of money, you might be able
to benefit from that because they have more
charitable dollars at their disposal. And I think for rural
poverty, it’s that isolation. It’s the lack of any
sort of organization that can easily move into
your place to assist you. I think there, the
federal role is critical. And federal dollars,
like, for example, for community
health clinics, are critical in these rural areas. But I wanted to pick up on one
other thing that you mentioned, Scott. And that’s the
concentration of poverty. So one of the things that
I found really interesting in your book was that
you found that there are concentrations of poor
people in suburban areas. And urban scholars always say
the concentration of poverty is one of the things that
really makes urban poverty, and it’s related to
racial segregation– makes urban poverty
particularly hard to solve and particularly entrenched. And so you have really
interesting findings about concentrated
poverty in the suburbs. Yeah. It’s a really
important question. And you’re right. When we think about
poverty in cities, we think about the
historical racial segregation of poverty in neighborhoods
where the poverty rate’s well over 20%, 30%, 40%. And what you find
is, actually, there are nearly as many
people in suburbs living in high-poverty
neighborhoods by that definition as in cities. And the trend has grown
dramatically over time. And yet how do you understand
the relative invisibility of suburban poverty? Right. Yeah. That’s a great question because
there’s this irony that poverty has become much more present
and pervasive in suburbs, but yet it’s– when you go
out and speak to communities, there’s still this
perception gap. And people still don’t
quite grasp that the problem is present in their community. Now, some of that is because
we have this narrative about poverty being
an urban phenomenon. And so even in suburbs,
when you go and talk to people about
neighborhoods or communities where there’s been
increases in poverty, they’ll say, well, in those
urban parts of our community. And they use the word “urban”
to, I think, in some ways, say that, well,
that’s not really– those aren’t our people. Those aren’t people
from our community. We may not be
responsible for them. But I think suburban poverty– Margaret raised earlier
this notion that poverty is a really– is an isolated– experience of isolation. And that’s true regardless of
where you are geographically. I think it may be different
in different types of places. But what you do find is, in a
lot of suburban communities, poverty’s isolated in
apartment complexes off of interstates or turnpikes
and maybe trailer parks or in cul-de-sacs with
more affordable housing tucked away, hidden
from view, hidden from the common
interactions of the day. And so people are often
surprised to learn that half the kids
in their school are on free and reduced lunch
because they don’t see it in their daily life. And I think part of
it’s they don’t see it. And part of it’s that we just
don’t talk about poverty as if it exists outside of cities. And I think some
of that has to do with the weak political
voice representing low-income people or the
interests of low-income people in the suburbs. One of the things that your
work has shown over time is just that the numbers
of nonprofit organizations in suburban areas is lower. And these organizations
don’t just provide services. They also act as advocates
for low-income people. So I think the
political voice that would be needed to represent the
problem and make it more public is not as strong
in suburban areas. Yeah. When you take stock of the
school board composition or the boards of
nonprofits or who’s elected to townships
or county councils, it doesn’t reflect the diversity
of these communities at all. One of the things– earlier, we were
talking about what’s unique about suburban poverty. I think one of the things that’s
unique about suburban poverty is the resonance of race and
ethnic identity for families in suburbs, where
I think in cities, cities are historically
more melting pots. And it isn’t that we don’t
have issues of racism or anti-immigrant
sentiment in cities. But I think those issues
are more present in suburbs. And I think it affects how
people connect to help. It’s– connects how they get
involved or mobilized to be involved in schools
or local government. And it really matters. There is an absence of voice,
to put it in those terms. One of the things I talk about
in the conclusion of the book then is the need to cultivate
the next generation of leaders, whether they’re
nonprofit leaders or governmental
leaders, that are indigenous leaders from
under-represented, marginalized communities in suburbs. The only way we’re going to
build better capacity, better response, and better
commitments is if we ensure that we’re
cultivating the next generation of leaders, helping
them, whether it’s through involvement on boards or
taking jobs as program managers and executive directors or
getting elected to offices in local and county government. If we aren’t doing
those things, we’re not going to change the local
dialogue and the local efforts dramatically. It’s still going to be– I think a lot of
the problems will continue to persist without a
lot of local effort or thought. I agree. I think a lot of local
leaders in the suburbs do not want to admit that
their community has a problem. And they do not want
to devote resources to addressing the
problem for fear that if they put money into
addressing the problem– that both they will become
known as a place that has homelessness or
they will be known as a place that has food– has access to food for
people who don’t have it and that they will
attract those people. So the suburbanization
of poverty is not just an
American phenomenon. That’s right. But it’s a phenomenon
elsewhere as well. I was curious if either
of you see models from other countries, especially
in federalist systems, ones that have our fragmented
approach of ways of navigating suburban poverty. The United States is
unique in the sense that we expect so
much to bubble up from below in terms
of organizations, in terms of ability
to solve problems. And even in federal societies,
such– or federal governments, such as Germany, there are
explicit federal policies devoted to place equalization. And one of the big dangers
in the United States is that places become poor. And then they enter
these downward spiral of raising taxes. And people leave. And then they raise taxes more. And more people leave. And their services decline. And eventually, you have a place
that is pretty hollowed out. That kind of thing– there were Rust Belt
places all over Europe. But these places
have much more access to national-level resources. And there’s much more
effort on the part of national governments
to organize a response, even if there are expectations
that there will be local engagement and locals– locally specific ways
of solving problems– not quite as hands-off as
it is in the United States. Yeah. I think that’s spot-on. One of the other realities
here is, especially if we think about
European cities, if we look at that as a
counter to or comparison to the US, those
cities developed at a very different time
than American cities did. And actually, poverty has
been a suburban reality in European cities
for a long time. That’s the way the
geography of poverty works in a lot of
European cities. Lower income
populations get pushed to the periphery or margins. Public housing decisions
reinforce that. Settlement patterns of
immigrants and refugees reinforce that. And I think that what’s
happening in the US is we’re catching up, at
some level, in that way. Our cities developed
at a different point in the early 19th or in
the early 20th century. And this suburbanization
of poverty is actually making the US
cities look less exceptional, if you will, than maybe American
exceptionalism would tell us. One thing I would say, too,
is that the– in Europe, there is more willingness of
the federal government to invest public dollars
in infrastructure. And if you build
an infrastructure, there are more
opportunities to build an inclusive public
infrastructure. And here, I think of
the Paris suburbs. And there was recently, over
the last 10 years, an effort to build a whole rail loop
all around those suburbs. Le Grande Paris, it was called. And initially, they
were simply going to bypass immigrant
neighborhoods. And they were going to
connect high-tech areas and bypass immigrant
neighborhoods, where the housing projects are. But the fact that it
was a public investment allowed for a public debate. And eventually, the
system, as planned now, includes those neighborhoods
and connects those neighborhoods to the whole rest of
the large metro area. So where do we go from here? I talk about the need
for us to maintain our federal commitment, to
actually strengthen and expand our federal
commitments, to safety net programs that we know work. We’re at the end of a
long economic recovery. And actually, for many people
at the lower end of the income distribution, there hasn’t
been nearly enough recovery. And we’re likely coming
to the end of years of growth and expansion. And the time for us is to
step up to our commitments, to provide access
to the programs we know that reduce
poverty, whether that’s the Earned Income Tax
Credit or food stamps. Those programs are really
effective at poverty reduction. And we know there’s a number of
employment programs and human source programs that could
invest more and that would help low-income households– so not stepping away from
our federal obligations and ensuring that
we’re providing funds and not cutting back or scaling
back, as many in Washington would like to now. As I mentioned, we have
to cultivate leadership in our communities and
do that intentionally. I think we need to step up with
our own giving and volunteerism needs. And there’s a lot of
room for us to dedicate more of our time and
money to organizations that help the most in need. And then I think just
our work as scholars, our work in communities
as volunteers, our work to get involved in
politics, demands, that we challenge the
stereotypes about poverty, pernicious stereotypes
that caste poverty is a problem for others,
for people of color in cities, when
poverty’s a problem that is present in all
our communities, that all our friends, families,
and relatives encounter– and that shared fate, I
think, is really important. It’s ultimately
what will help us solve poverty problems
in cities, suburbs, or rural communities. I totally agree with this
image of putting more into realizing that we have
a misallocation of resources. We spend so much on imprisoning
people in this country. It’s a negative set of
priorities that we have. If we can redirect
some of that money towards actually promoting more
opportunity through investing in these various
social services, we would be able to grow in ways
that was much more inclusive. The two other things I would
mention– and one of them, of course, is the housing issue. And one of the problems
where we end up having concentrations
of poverty is because affordable
housing is not available in areas
of opportunity. And addressing
this housing issue through the use of vouchers
that help people find and move to areas of opportunity
with good schools is an essential piece of being
able to address this issue. And one other factor
that I would mention, although I don’t think
I totally believe it’s good in the
American context– but when I think
about how difficult it has been to knit together
this social safety net, I know that some
places have been experimenting with the idea
of a universal basic income. The city of Stockton
in California has a trial of example of
putting this into place. And it does make me think we
have low wages in this country. We’re not raising the
minimum wage enough. People– families have all kinds
of distress and insecurity. And in some ways, trying
to address all that through social services
is such a big burden. One of the things that
Margaret points out here is the need for innovative
solutions and new– and testing new ideas and experimenting. Our American system,
for all it isn’t, is– actually allows us
to do some of that. And actually, I
think this is where places like the Taubman Center
and the Watson Institute are so critical. You’re training– and we
saw this today, Susan– you’re training
the next generation of thought leaders, people
with creative ideas, with really dynamic tool kits,
and with a concern for issues of inclusion and equity
that are going to matter and are going to resonate
in our communities in the next couple decades. And I think our hopes for new
solutions and new ideas come from the work we do
to train students at places like Brown
University or the University of Washington, where I’m at. Our hope has to hang on that. It’s really a critical
piece to this puzzle. Well, Scott and
Margaret, thank you. Thank you. This was great. I can’t wait to come back. [MUSIC PLAYING] This has been
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