Suburban Growth and the Rise of Suburban Poverty

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Poverty has always been an unfortunate component of the country’s economic landscape — and it is becoming increasingly prevalent. Much of the U.S. population is struggling, even while fighting for access to government programs and other resources. Economic changes have greatly affected poor and lower-income Americans, causing poverty to spread from cities to increasingly include the suburbs. As this trend continues, new avenues of economic assistance need to be explored to mitigate poverty’s growing impact.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Ohio University’s Online Masters in Public Administration.

The Growth of Suburban Poverty infographic

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Poverty in the United States

The recent increase of people in the United States who are living in poverty is not dominated by any single demographic. It is impacting people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Poverty Guidelines Based on Household Income

According to updated 2021 guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the following thresholds define those living below the federal poverty level:

  • Single-person household earning less than $12,880 annually
  • Two-person household earning less than $17,420
  • Three-person household earning less than $21,960
  • Four-person household earning less than $26,500
  • Five-person household earning less than $31,040
  • Six-person household earning less than $35,580
  • Seven-person household earning less than $40,120
  • Eight-person household earning less than 44,660

For families larger than eight, HHS adds $4,540 for each person.

HHS guidelines are slightly different for Alaska and Hawaii, with Alaska’s poverty line set at $16,090 and Hawaii’s at $14,820.

Analysis of People in Poverty

  • Approximately 37.2 million people were living in poverty in 2020, including 11.6 million minors and 5 million seniors, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • The Census Bureau’s 2020 Supplemental Poverty Measure shows 9.1% of people were experiencing poverty.
  • Approximately 29% of non-working adults were living in poverty. In comparison, 5% of full-time working adults were living below the federal poverty level.
  • An estimated 25% of adults aged 25 or older lacking a high-school diploma were in poverty, compared to 4% of adult college graduates.
  • Among single parents and married couples with or without children, single mothers were the most likely to be in poverty, with 23.4% living below the poverty level. By contrast, 11.4% of single fathers and 8.7% of married couples were living in poverty as well.

Poverty Is Moving to the Suburbs

Poverty in the United States has made a surprising and dramatic shift. While it used to be more prevalent in cities, more people below the poverty line are now living in the suburbs. In 2020, there were 16.2 million people living below the federal poverty level in suburban neighborhoods, compared to 15.1 million who were living below the poverty level in urban neighborhoods.

The Number of Poor People Has Risen

While suburban neighborhoods have seen the largest increase in people living in poverty, the total number of poor people has steadily risen throughout the United States in the past two decades.

According to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, there was a 55% increase in suburban residents living in poverty from 2000 and 2018. This is more than double the 23% increase in urban core residents living in poverty.

What Is Fueling This Increase in Suburban Poverty?

Numerous factors related to economic changes are contributing to the rise of poverty in the suburbs. Federal, state, and local programs need to adjust their agendas to fight this problem as more people outside cities are living in poverty.

Reasons for Suburban Poverty Growth

During the U.S. recession starting in 2007, millions of jobs were lost, foreclosure rates increased, and a large number of suburban residents lost their homes after the housing bubble burst.

Programs designed to help those living in poverty are usually concentrated in metropolitan areas. As a consequence, these programs were less accessible to suburban populations. Plus, increasing gentrification projects further pushed individuals and families out of urban neighborhoods, compelling them to relocate into suburban options because they could not afford to live in gentrified areas.

These projects have particularly affected long-time residents of color, who on average earn lower incomes.

  • According to a 2020 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic households had a median annual income of $55,321.
  • Black households had a median annual income of $45,870.
  • White households had a medium-income of $74,912.

COVID-19’s Social and Economic Effects

COVID-19’s impact has shifted the residential landscape. Lockdowns on urban entertainment and cultural venues and an increase in telework have led to an increased preference for suburban living.

  • A 2021 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that 46% of people preferred suburban living, compared to 42% in 2018.
  • 49% of respondents said finding affordable housing in their communities was a big issue, up from 39% in 2018.
  • 48% of Black adults and 46% of Hispanic adults stated the pandemic’s economic impact was a substantial issue for their community, as opposed to 30% of white adults and 29% of Asian adults who said the same.

What Is Needed to Fight Suburban Poverty?

Poverty in the suburbs is a multifaceted, nuanced, and complex problem. A varied approach that includes increased scale, funding and collaboration with existing poverty assistance programs is needed to find a solution.

Considering better-suited locations for services such as affordable housing, credit services, homeless shelters, and land banks could also help mitigate the effects of suburban poverty.

There are also many existing programs focused on fighting suburban poverty, including CommonBond Communities, the Housing Partnership Equity Trust, and the Road Map Project, to name a few.

As poverty in the United States has shifted to increasingly include suburban areas, there is a growing need for programs to move into those neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest. Read this comprehensive infographic to learn more about what is causing suburban poverty and how to fight it.

Make a Difference in the Lives of Others

The online Master of Public Administration degree program at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs can help you build the skills to address public needs in effective, efficient, and imaginative ways. We want you to take your big ideas and put them into action by helping you develop as a project manager, communicator, policy analyst, and financial thinker.

With an understanding of public administration and the professional tools to succeed, you can help lift people out of poverty and help them toward a better future. Learn how Ohio University’s MPA program can help you lead a career of consequence.

Recommended Readings

The Grand Challenges in Public Administration

How Public Policy Supports Homeless Youth in America

Running a Charitable Organization in Uncertain Times


CommonBond Communities, Our Mission

Housing Partnership Equity Trust, Who We Are

National Low Income Housing Coalition, Gentrification and Neighborhood Revitalization: What’s the Difference?

PEW Research Center, “Americans Are Less Likely Than Before COVID-19 To Want To Live in Cities, More Likely to Prefer Suburbs”

PEW Research Center, “Prior to COVID-19, Urban Core Counties in the U.S. Were Gaining Vitality on Key Measures”

Road Map Project, About the Road Map Project

U.S. Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020

U.S. Census Bureau, The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2020

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021 Poverty Guidelines