Is Poverty Rising Faster in Suburbs Versus Cities?
As the economic geography of the U.S. experiences continued evolution, even renaissance in many areas, the geography of American poverty is shifting too.
Large demographic shifts are reshaping America. The country is growing in numbers, it’s becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and the population is aging. But according to a new analysis by Pew Research Center, these trends are playing out differently across community types.
Urban areas are at the leading edge of racial and ethnic change, with non-whites now a clear majority of the population in urban counties while solid majorities in suburban and rural areas are white. Urban and suburban counties are gaining population due to an influx of immigrants in both types of counties, as well as domestic migration into suburban areas. In contrast, rural counties have made only minimal gains since 2000 as the number of people leaving for urban or suburban areas has outpaced the number moving in. And while the population is graying in all three types of communities, this is happening more rapidly in the suburbs than in urban and rural counties
At the same time, urban and rural communities are becoming increasingly different from each other politically. Adults in urban counties, long aligned with the Democratic Party, have moved even more to the left in recent years, and today twice as many urban voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic as affiliate with the Republican Party. For their part, rural adults have moved more firmly into the Republican camp. 54% of rural voters now identify with or lean to the GOP, while 38% are Democrats or lean Democratic.
Against this backdrop, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that many urban and rural residents feel misunderstood and looked down on by Americans living in other types of communities. About two-thirds or more in urban and rural areas say people in other types of communities don’t understand the problems people face in their communities. And majorities of urban and rural residents say people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do. In contrast, most suburbanites say people who don’t live in the suburbs have a positive view of those who do.
The divides that exist across urban, suburban and rural areas when it comes to views on social and political issues don’t necessarily extend to how people are experiencing life in different types of communities. Rural and suburban adults are somewhat more rooted in their local areas, but substantial shares in cities, suburbs and rural areas say they have lived in their communities for more than 10 years. And about six-in-ten in each type of community say they feel at least some sense of attachment to their communities, though relatively few say they are very attached.
For adults who currently live in or near the place where they grew up – roughly half in rural areas and about four-in-ten in cities and suburbs – family ties stand out as the most important reason why they have never left or why they moved back after living away. And, when it comes to their interactions with neighbors, urban, suburban and rural residents are about equally likely to say they communicate with them on a regular basis.
In addition, urban and rural residents share some of the same concerns. Roughly equal shares of urban (50%) and rural (46%) residents say that drug addiction is a major problem in their local community. When it comes to the availability of jobs, rural adults are somewhat more likely to say this is a major problem where they live (42% say so), but a substantial share of urban dwellers (34%) say the same, significantly higher than the share in suburban communities (22%). Other problems – such as access to affordable housing in cities and access to public transportation in rural areas – are felt more acutely in some areas than in others.
The nationally representative survey of 6,251 adults was conducted online Feb. 26-March 11, 2018, using Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. It explores the attitudes and experiences of Americans in urban, suburban and rural areas, including their views on key social and political issues, how they see people in other types of communities, and how they’re living out their lives in their local communities. The survey sheds light on what divides and unites Americans across community types as well as on differences within urban, suburban and rural areas – sometimes driven by partisanship, sometimes by demographics. The study also includes a detailed analysis of demographic trends in urban, rural and suburban counties.
Among the report’s key findings is that there are significant gaps in measures of economic well-being in urban, suburban and rural counties. In addition to the divergent demographic trends taking place in urban, suburban and rural communities, the analysis finds that rural counties lag behind their urban and suburban counterparts when it comes to some measures related to economic well-being. The average earnings per worker in urban areas were $49,515 in 2016, followed by $46,081 in the suburbs and $35,171 in rural areas, though these figures don’t account for differences in living costs across county types. And while the number of employed adults ages 25 to 54 rose in urban and suburban counties since 2000, it declined in rural counties overall.
When it comes to the number of people living in poverty, however, the suburbs have seen much sharper increases since 2000 than urban or rural counties – a 51% increase, compared with 31% in cities and 23% in rural areas. Overall, the poverty rate is somewhat higher in rural (18%) and urban (17%) areas than in suburban (14%) counties.
Other key finds include:
- Rural Americans, especially those without a college degree, are less optimistic about their financial future
- Across community types, majorities say rural areas get less than their fair share of federal dollars
- About six-in-ten rural residents say the values of urban dwellers don’t align with theirs; 53% of urban residents say the same about the values of those in rural areas
- Urban and rural Americans differ sharply in their views of some key social and political issues, but in some cases this has more to do with partisanship than geography
- Seven-in-ten urban dwellers – vs. about half in rural areas – say it’s important to them to live in a community that is racially and ethnically diverse
- Urban and rural residents see drug addiction as a top-tier problem in their local community
- About four-in-ten U.S. adults live in or near the community where they grew up
- Across community types, relatively few say they feel very attached to the community where they live
- Smaller shares of adults in rural areas than in cities and suburbs say they’d like to move away
- Rural residents are more likely than those in cities or suburbs to say they know all or most of their neighbors, but no more likely to interact with them
The suburbanization of America in the last century is one of the most powerful development in economic history. It’s fitting then, perhaps, that the pace of suburbanization peaked in its last decade, the 1990's. The pace of sprawl’s outward crawl has slowed since 2000 and development pressure has turned decidedly inward—with many already densely populated urban areas experiencing overwhelming infill forces. Elsewhere, in relative less dense built-environments, there is still a pull towards greater density.
Another, less constructive turn was also made as the suburban expansion reached maturity and beyond in the 1990’s: poverty began to rotate into the suburbs. Poverty has increased across the suburban landscape by 50% since 1990 and the actual number of suburbanites living in high poverty areas nearly tripled in that time.
Pews new findings are consistent with other research throughout the U.S. over the past decade. So, this is not a completely new trend manifesting in the wake of the Great Recession—although, in most suburbs, unemployment was twice as high in 2014 as in 1990.
There is a broader suburban rotation that has become more noticeable and relevant in recent years. As the U.S. economic renaissance takes shape and the economic geography of America evolves, businesses adjust and it's put incredible stress on the labor market. With many firms moving to urban areas, many urban office parks are emptying out with a similar slow drumbeat of many malls. As these structural shifts rotate jobs out of the suburbs, just as they did in urban areas at the beginning of the prior long cycle, people in the burbs are bearing the brunt of the blowback.
Other research indicates that suburban poverty is growing three times faster than population size in suburban communities.
About Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research. It studies U.S. politics and policy; journalism and media; internet, science and technology; religion and public life; Hispanic trends; global attitudes and trends; and U.S. social and demographic trends. All of the Center’s reports are available at www.pewresearch.org. Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder.