Researched & written by: Brooke Dunn & Marisol Gouveia

The landscape of poverty in America has changed dramatically. No longer is it confined to urban cores and high-rise projects. Today, poverty is as likely to be found in suburban areas as anywhere else. For major cities like Seattle, poverty has exited the city and taken root in the suburbs.

The Great Recession precipitated a tipping point in poverty’s geography. According to the Brookings Institution, for the first time in American history the suburbs are now home to more poor than our city centers. In 2015, the nation’s 16 million poor suburban residents outstripped those living in cities by 3 million. In Seattle’s King County, more than two thirds of everyone at or below the federal poverty line lives in the suburbs. Indianapolis has seen similar changes. From 2000 to 2011, the change in the number of poor people in the suburbs increased by over 100 percent compared to an approximate increase of 91 percent in the city. This pivot came at the intersection of multiple factors, including redevelopment driving up housing costs in urban centers and amplifying a lack of affordable housing options; population growth, especially among immigrant groups and people of color; relocation of jobs to the suburbs, especially low-wage work; and lack of public transit, especially for a low-income population challenged by the costs of car ownership.

Housing costs continue to skyrocket. In 1997, the average rent in King County was $650; in 2017, it is $1617, a 60% increase in a decade, concentrated mostly in neighborhoods in urban Seattle. As poor families move out of the city, there is an accompanying shift in strain on social services and infrastructure like schools and transportation. Some suburban areas find they are ill-equipped to deal with the influx. Additionally, federal, state and local programs and philanthropy still remain mainly focused on urban (and to a lesser degree rural) areas, while need is growing most rapidly in the suburbs.

As Indianapolis strives to evolve into a Midwest tech hub, a watchful eye should be kept on communities just outside our city limits. Young professionals moving downtown and into urban neighborhoods, limited affordable housing stock and a lack of extensive public transit could signal a coming challenge for the suburbs of central Indiana.

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