Poverty and philanthropy in the suburbs

Original Article

When we think of poverty, we might think of blighted inner cities or depressed rural towns. But don’t forget poverty in the suburbs, says a new book from the Brookings Institution by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.

Since the 1980s, poverty has been growing in the suburbs at a faster rate than in the cities or rural areas. This increase accelerated in the 2000s. Today there are more poor Americans living in the suburbs than in the cities, and 55 percent of poor people (15.3 million) in metropolitan areas live in suburbs. While the poor population in Seattle and other Puget Sound cities grew by 26 percent from 2000-10, the poor population in the nearby suburbs (where I live) grew by 74 percent. In 2010, 68 percent of poor residents in the Seattle metropolitan area were suburban, compared to 61 percent just a decade earlier.

Most of the poor in sixty metropolitan regions across the country live in the suburbs. In sixteen metropolitan regions (such as Atlanta, Boise, Cape Coral, Colorado Springs, Columbus [OH], Grand Rapids, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City), the numbers of suburban poor more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.

There are various reasons for the increase of suburban poverty in the 2000s: the increase of overall poverty because of the Great Recession, the aging of suburban housing stock, the migration of the upper and middle classes from older suburbs to newer suburbs or into the cities, the location of immigrant populations in lower-cost suburban areas.

Suburban poverty looks different than urban or rural poverty. For instance, while only 20 percent of the urban poor owned homes in 2010, 36 percent of the suburban poor were homeowners. These suburban families were especially impacted by the foreclosure crisis. Furthermore, write Kneebone and Berube, “Some of the things that many poor city neighborhoods have—proximity to jobs, services, and transit—poor suburban communities lack.”

The infrastructure for addressing poverty was largely established during the Great Society programs of the 1960s and focuses on cities. Philanthropy, too, is concentrated in cities. A 2011 Brookings study of giving patterns ( by Sarah Reckhow and Margaret Weir focused on suburban Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, and Detroit. Reckhow and Weir found that “[s]uburban community foundations in the four regions studied are newer and smaller than those in core cities, despite faster growth of suburban poor populations,” and that “relatively few [foundation] dollars are devoted to building organizational capacity in the suburbs.” Even as social service nonprofits are increasingly strained in suburban areas, foundation funding to the suburbs remains limited by city-centered foundation charters, preferences for established urban nonprofits, or simple lack of understanding of suburban challenges.

Addressing suburban poverty is as much a challenge for philanthropists as it is for policymakers. The population of poor people in East Contra Costa County in the Bay Area grew by 70 percent during the 2000s, yet according to Kneebone and Berube, “Most philanthropic dollars in the region remained tethered to historically poor communities in Oakland, San Francisco, or other big cities.”

Kneebone and Berube argue that our thinking about poverty has yet to catch up to its suburban realities. They suggest some remedies, many of which are helpful to foundations and donors seeking to maximize their philanthropy. First, they say that nonprofits and other social service providers need to scale up “to bring efficiency, expertise, and entrepreneurialism to the challenges facing low-income people and communities in cities and suburbs alike.” Second, sectors and organizations need to do a better job of collaborating to share resources, ideas, and goals.

Foundations can play a major role in bringing suburban leaders and institutions together and maximizing efforts:

Examining options to improve efficiencies and reduce replication among nonprofits often takes resources and capacity that organizations do not have. And they may require one-time fees to carry out the necessary restructuring. Although some funders specifically fund these types of efforts, philanthropy could do more to encourage and support organizational assessments along these lines, as well as fund strategic alliances and mergers.

As the suburbs experience the pains of maturity, they have an opportunity to rise above their old symbolism of mere middle class upward mobility. Upward mobility may be an important part of the American Dream, but so is community. As we resolve to address suburban poverty, can we, after all, make our suburbs more humane, more purposeful? Can the suburbs rise to the challenges they face by developing new institutions, philanthropic outlets, and service opportunities? Will a generation of suburban leaders stand up for their neighborhoods, build civic networks, and bring together resources to solve problems?

If these things can happen, our suburbs can be more than nice places to settle down and raise a family in “little boxes made of ticky-tacky,” as Malvina Reynolds once satirized the snobbish suburbs. Perhaps suburbs can be decent homes, places where rich and poor alike can actually stay and contribute and leave legacies over generations.


Hans Zeiger leads the Center for Civic Leadership program at Discovery Institute.

Hans Zeiger

Director, Chapman Center for Civic Leadership
Hans Zeiger served as the director of the Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership, leading the Chapman Fellows program. He serves in the Washington State Senate, representing the 25th Legislative District, covering central Pierce County. Hans was elected to the State House of Representatives in 2010 and reelected in 2012 and 2014, representing the 25th Legislative District. Hans was recognized as the co-recipient of the Gabrielle Giffords Award for Civility, he serves in the Washington Air National Guard, sits on the boards of the Washington State Historical Society, the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, and the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, and was a 2017 Leadership Fellow of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and a 2018 Rodel Fellow of the Aspen Institute. Hans graduated from Puyallup High School and holds a bachelor’s degree from Hillsdale College and a Masters degree in Public Policy from Pepperdine University.