Social Innovation Speaker Series corrects misconceptions about poverty in urban, suburban areas

USC Sol Price School of Public Policy


Increasing levels of poverty in suburbs over the past 30 years has created a spatial mismatch of where support services and poverty are located, University of Washington professor Scott Allard said at the February 28th Social Innovation Speaker Series lunch hosted by the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation.

“In the U.S., poverty is largely viewed in our popular discourse and our news coverage as being an urban phenomenon,” Allard said.

“By contrast, suburbs are kind of the places of affluence. They’re the American dream personified. They’re normative in that they symbolize work and family formation.”

Speaking from his recent book, Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty in America, Allard discussed conventional thinking around place, race and poverty, its implication on safety net and human-service provisions in our communities, and pathways ahead.

“Scott has a distinguished career,” said Prof. Gary Painter, director of the Sol Price Center. “He trained as a political scientist but, as with a lot of us in policy schools, selected to go into a policy school to engage multiple disciplines in multiple ways to address critical social challenges. He has quite an extensive record working on issues of poverty, most recently as part of a team looking at minimum wage in Seattle.”

Allard noted that, in the U.S., it’s also common to link place and poverty to race, so conversations about urban poverty are often connected to communities of color.

In his book, he frames this spatial discourse around poverty to study how these associations and stereotypes often appear in academic work, and shape news coverage and policy debates. He showed that there is virtually no mention in academic research of the words “suburbs” and “poverty” in the same article.

“It is true that poverty problems are more acute in cities and communities of color in any geographic place,” Allard said. “We don’t want to lose sight of that. But by thinking of poverty as urban, we don’t look at poverty in other places. This promotes and reinforces biased understandings of poverty about racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. It fosters the notion that poverty is an experience that others have, and that means the responsibility of taking care of poverty is something for other people to do.”

Allard wants to challenge this conventional thinking of where poverty is located today, who is poor and how the safety net responds.

An updated chart from the book shows that, in 2017, there were about four million more people in poverty in the suburbs of cities than the cities themselves, and this isn’t a new phenomenon. The tipping point happened nationally sometime in 2000. Allard contends that the lack of academic attention to this issue over that time illuminates a blind spot in research.

These changes of the geography of poverty matter because they don’t align with how the safety net and services are being deployed in many communities.

“One of the realities is that because of how we thought about poverty as an urban problem, a lot of our investments are predicated on poverty being concentrated in cities,” Allard said. “What this means is that suburban areas and rural areas where poverty problems have gotten much worse over the last 30 years have less capacity because our investments have been targeted so intentionally at cities.”

Research shows a weak relationship, if any, between changes in human-service expenditures among nonprofits and needs in counties. However, urban poverty is still an issue, so reallocating services and funds to suburban communities isn’t the answer.

There are challenges for local safety nets and human-service providers outside of cities, where the public or private capacity to act often does not exist. In many suburban places, fragmentation of institutions makes it difficult to do the work and distance makes it harder for providers to have economies of scale. There’s also an element of NIMBYism, as people worry that a perception of poverty in their neighborhood will hurt home values.

According to Allard, there has been some success in building awareness and support among state and local elected officials, expanding public investments and private philanthropy, supporting culturally competent practice, tapping into communities of faith, finding small collaborations on which to build, and investing in convenings and dialogues.

“The places that I think had the most promise for doing better for their communities were places that were training the next generation of leaders – investing in their skills around budgeting, management, finances and evaluation – but also investing in indigenous leaders, young leaders often from communities of color, that not only could do the professional work but also understood the community’s needs and interface with communities in a more authentic way,” Allard said.

“We need to cultivate different leaders. If we refract funding or initiatives through the same power structures, we are going to reproduce the inequalities that we observe.”